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Sinking teeth into oral health research

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Oral health therapist Nicole Cockburn says she approached homeless youth organisation Brisbane Youth Service about volunteering opportunities in 2015. Although there were no vacancies for the types of volunteering she had in mind, there were definitely opportunities. Cockburn worked in close collaboration with Brisbane Youth Service to win funding and set up a mobile dental clinic.

Dental Rescue Week, the result, is now operated by volunteer dental professionals four times per year. The service offers homeless youth free check-ups, cleans, fillings, oral hygiene information and referrals for further treatment.

Nicole Cockburn with young people from Brisbane Youth Service. Nicole Cockburn with young people from Brisbane Youth Service. Photo: Supplied

In the year the service has been operating, dental volunteers have completed 150 appointments.

99 per cent of the participants in the service state they would use it again.

“All of these young people haven’t had enough time to have really advanced problems, so a lot of them can have all of their work done through having these basic procedures done,” says Cockburn.

Cockburn is a research assistant at the University of Queensland’s school of dentistry. Working with professor Pauline Ford, head of UQ’s dentistry school, she says she gets to experience the full cycle of the research process. Her role involves writing grant and ethics applications, collecting data in the field, analysing data and putting her findings into academic papers that the research team aims to have published.

Cockburn also concurrently works as an oral health therapist in private practice. There are presently close to 1500 oral health therapists registered in Australia, according to 2017 Dental Board of Australia data. The Dental Board of Australia states oral health therapists perform a range of activities included under the definition of dentistry. These activities include conducting dental examinations, X-raying teeth and jaws, restoring teeth with fillings, extracting teeth under local anaesthetic and providing counselling, education and promotion on healthy practices.

“Definitely not many people would know who we are unless they had been treated by an oral health therapist before and had it explained to them what we do,” says Cockburn. “We’re definitely not in every private practice but there are lots of us employed in public government services.” Cockburn completed the three-year bachelor of oral health at the University of Queensland in 2014.

This year, she was announced winner of the Young Leader Award at the HESTA Primary Healthcare Awards, in recognition of her outstanding leadership in developing Dental Rescue Week.

Next year, Cockburn intends to commence her PhD, with a view to further developing her career in the academic space.

“But my research will always be clinically focused,” says Cockburn. “It’s always going to be investigating oral health.”

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