This Dental Health Week (3-9 August) we are reminded about the importance of maintaining good oral health in every aspect of our lives. James Cook University Dentistry graduate, Maleta Seiler, is one of the great outback heroes educating communities on how to live happy and healthy lives, starting with their teeth.
In just six short years after graduating from JCU, Maleta is in a position where she oversees the provision of public dental and oral health services across 65 per cent of the Northern Territory - a geographically vast and culturally diverse region.
“I was definitely not expecting to be a clinical manager of such a large health service this early in my career, but I feel very privileged to be here,” Maleta said.
“We provide public dental and oral health services for the entire Central Australia and Barkly region, including 33 out of the 38 surrounding communities, some of which can be quite remote. Our main hub is based in Alice Springs. We also provide weekly dental treatment under general anesthesia at Alice Springs Hospital, outreach services to school-based dental clinics, and weekly services to Alice Springs Correctional Centre.”
As it can take up to eight hours to travel to some of the more remotely located communities, Maleta has made it her mission to work with other locally-based health organisations, to help improve community oral health outcomes.
“When you have such a huge area to cover, it results in services being stretched so thin that you may only be able to provide a once yearly dental health visit to a community, which is just not enough. So in my role, I am very much focused on building more partnerships with locally-based Aboriginal Controlled Health Organisations and other health providers such as the Royal Flying Doctors Service, so that we can all work together to improve the oral health of remote communities.
“We also have our ‘Healthy Smiles’ program where we educate and certify Aboriginal health practitioners and remote area nurses to be able to apply fluoride varnish for kids aged under five. This program provides training for nurses and health practitioners to identify early signs of dental disease, which gives them the confidence to be able to call our team and refer patients should they be concerned.”
Another community-based program that was recently launched under Maleta’s watch, with the memorable name of ‘Cheeky Dog’, is proving to be wildly successful at raising awareness of oral health across the Central Australian region. Thanks in part to the eye-catching imagery used by the program.
“The ‘Cheeky Dog’ campaign was done in partnership with Aboriginal artist, Dion Beasley who had already illustrated a series of children’s books using his much-loved illustrations of Tennant Creek’s dogs. Dion’s imagery has been a great way to capture children’s attention across the Central Australian region.”
The ‘Cheeky Dog’ campaign also tackles oral health as part of a more inclusive, holistic health campaign that includes raising awareness of other health issues.
“The Cheeky Dog campaign has five key messages of: Brush well, Eat well, Drink well, Play well, and Stay well. This means we can approach other allied health teams and health practitioners to help get a broader health message out to the communities, and for it to not just be about oral health.”
Maleta is grateful for the understanding of health promotions and health services management that she gained through her external studies with JCU’s Master of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
“Studying health promotion has been very beneficial, as I am learning that it is not just about education and communication, but also about targeting what is important for people rather than constantly pushing for strategies that may not be successful.
“I also enjoyed learning about strategic planning and health services management as it’s so relevant to what I am doing now. I find that there are a lot of opportunities to be creative and innovative in my role, which I really enjoy.”
Maleta in front of the mobile clinic
Maleta keeps her connections to JCU active by supervising dentistry students who choose to do their practical placements with the Central Australia Oral Health Service.
“It is vital to have culturally aware dental practitioners when working in Central Australia. JCU’s focus on rural, remote and Indigenous health care gives students a good foundation to practice in a culturally safe and appropriate manner, especially in rural and remote settings where there can be diverse communities and potentially challenging situations.
“During my interview for the position of Clinical Manager, one of the questions was ‘What does person-centered care mean to you?’. JCU’s focus on teaching students to treat patients with care, respect and relevance to their particular situation has been very beneficial to my current role.”
During her final year in the Bachelor of Dental Surgery program at JCU, Maleta undertook placements in Thursday Island and Darwin, and then worked for the Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service straight after graduating.
“I worked in Thursday Island for a few years, which included weekly visits to the clinic at Bamaga on the mainland and also outreach services to the outer islands in the Torres Strait. I then worked in Cooktown as Senior Dental Officer and provided weekly services to clinics at the Aboriginal communities of Wujal Wujal and Hope Vale.
“Those experiences helped me to gain a deeper understanding of cultural awareness as well as how the social determinants of health can really impact people. For example, you need to take into consideration restrictions on running water when giving oral hygiene advice as on some of the Torres Strait islands the water only runs in the houses for a few hours a day.”
In recognition of her skills and knowledge of working with remote communities, the JCU Dentistry program has recently invited Maleta to supervise their student placement program in the Solomon Islands that has been providing students with some unique culturally-immersive experiences for the past three years.
“I’m looking forward to further building the capacity and relationships with health services in the Solomon Islands. I come from Tonga in the South Pacific originally, and can appreciate some of the potential difficulties in providing health care in more remote settings.”
Maleta’s road to becoming a dentist has not been straightforward but has been one that she has pursued regardless of the obstacles.
“My family lives in Toowoomba and weren’t ready for me to leave home after high school to study elsewhere, so I ended up staying in my hometown and doing a Bachelor of Biomedical Science. After that, I applied to study dentistry, but I didn’t get accepted initially and so instead I did a Bachelor of Oral Health in Dental Technology. I really enjoyed the hands-on and creative aspects of dental technology and after completing that program, I was then successful in gaining a place in JCU’s Bachelor of Dental Surgery.
“I am grateful for the JCU Dentistry program having such a strong advocacy for rural and remote health and a focus on health equity and equality. One of my visions is to have the Oral Health Service Central Australia recognised as a centre of excellence for rural and remote dentistry.”
Do you want to make a difference in rural health? Find out what you can do with JCU Dentistry.