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The dentist changing the lives of the homeless

To the benefit of countless VincentCare clients, Deepti took the position at Victoria’s first exclusive homelessness dental chair and has never regretted her decision.

When the Manager of the Special Needs team at the Royal Dental Hospital of Melbourne first approached her to join the Ozanam Dental Clinic in 2010, Deepti Cherukuri was hesitant. “I didn’t know what to expect. I was ignorant. I didn’t know if I would be able to do it.” Deepti put her fears to one side– remembering her entrenched belief that everyone deserves good dental health and great dental service.

Access to health care professionals who understand the situations and needs of homeless people, is an essential element of holistic, transformational recovery services offered by VincentCare. Deepti discusses the importance of empathising with her patients and communicating in a way that ensures each individual understands their options and different procedures, so they can make an informed choice. This helps patients to be involved and exercise autonomy over their personal health care decisions.

“I don’t make assumptions, I treat everyone with respectand simply focus on helping the patients. They soon realise that dentists are really not that scary.”

Many homeless patients walk through the door in great pain, with teeth in a very bad state. Some have not made dental hygiene a priority for decades. Their poor dental state often adds to their loss of confidence and a feeling of shame.

“Once patients realise that I empathise with their situation, they are able to relax more easily and gain trust with us. They want to come back to us and get all their teeth fixed. Having a big smile on their faces and seeing their transformation is very satisfying and rewarding.”

One of the most exciting aspects of the new Ozanam Homeless Resource Centre will be client access to a range of wrap-around supports, including primary and allied health services, all in one location. Co-located with flexible accommodation options, the health platform will assist clients to achieve their physical and mental wellbeing goals. This will include the only homelessness-specific dental service in the state. Other services will include spaces for nurses, visiting GPs and those working in the areas of alcohol and drug intervention, physiotherapy, acupuncture, optometry, and occupational therapy. These services will complement the case managed support that homeless clients at all stages of their recovery journey will receive.

VincentCare Senior Practitioner Doug Harding highlights the importance of having all these services operating within the one, client-focused practice framework. “Using recovery principles and trauma-informed practice helps ground our staff. It ensures we don’t default into just running programs in isolation, and we are actually assisting people to return to independence.” This independence looks different for everyone. For some, it may include a life changing trip to the dentist.

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