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Written By

Andrew Cramb

College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

28 November 2022

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JCU Dentistry helping protect young Indigenous footy players on the field

JCU Dentistry plays a vital role in providing access to affordable dental health care to Cairns and the broader Far North region, and they’re taking that care from the clinic to the footy field.

Dentistry students and staff have made custom-fitted mouthguards for 30 students at AFL Cape York House, a boarding and training facility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in Far North Queensland. The project is part of The Healthier Smiles Community Service Grants, a joint initiative of the Australian Dental Health Foundation and Mars Wrigley Foundation.

The 30 students will receive their mouthguards after a final fitting at JCU Dental Clinic on Monday, 21 November. It will provide a whole new level of comfort and protection for the young Aussie Rules players. JCU Professor in Prosthodontics and Operative Dentistry, Prof John Abbott, says the personalised mouthguards will go above and beyond the standard store-bought protection.

“A lot of tooth injuries can occur in AFL, like any contact sport. Having a mouthguard certainly helps prevent these injuries, but some do a better job of it than others!” Prof Abbott says. “The difference being that the mouthguard needs to come up under the nose, not just to the tooth-line, to protect from knocks to the head and jarring blows.”

JCU Dentistry staff and students with AFL Cape York House students.

A unique experience and inspiring role models

More than protective equipment, the mouthguards will no doubt be worn with pride. Students were given their choice of colours and opted for the colours of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island flags.

“It was important for us to give students the opportunity to personalise their mouthguards,” Prof Abbott says, “They’re understandably proud of their heritage and they’ll look good in these mouthguards when they hit the field.”

AFL Cape York House Boarding Manager for the House for Girls, Sean Hunter says the partnership with JCU helps to promote healthy messages around dental hygiene and mouth care that the students can take back to their families and broader communities.

"It's a unique life experience for the kids," Sean says. "They get to come here and learn a few things and take home some new information and these special mouthguards. Ultimately, it's about the protection of the mouth, but having them branded in Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island colours creates a really deadly message for these young people. They'll be proud to wear it and they'll be representing where they're from every time they smile on the footy field."

The visit to the JCU Dental Clinical also gave students the opportunity to see Indigenous JCU Dentistry students in action, which Sean says can be a powerful motivation for young people in broadening their horizons of what might be possible.

"Sometimes our young people don't know who they can be because they can't see them. It's incredibly powerful to be able to have some Indigenous dentistry students build a relationship and make them feel safe and secure and have conversations around careers and pathways.

"We spoke about this being a life-experience opportunity here. It's more than protection and it's more than teeth. It's about creating a connection for our young people and them knowing this is an option for them if they put their heads down at school," Sean says.

It's a sentiment echoed by Indigenous dentistry student, Chris Cavanagh, who was helping on the project and says it has been a great way to give back to the community.

"I've been in their shoes," Chris says. "I never thought about uni when I was in high school and I've overcome a lot of barriers just to be here. This is a perfect opportunity to show these students that anything is possible and to say that this path is difficult and challenging, but it's also doable and really rewarding."

JCU Dentistry student with AFL Cape York House student
JCU Dentistry student explains the fit of the mouthguard to a AFL Cape York House student
JCU Dentistry students with students from AFL Cape York House at the mouth guard fitting.

A broader commitment to socially accountable dentistry

Working behind the scenes to produce the mouthguards is the JCU prosthodontics team. Making the 30 mouthguards was four full days of work for Clinician Instructor Stephan Fischer and two other prosthodontic technicians.

Stephan estimates that each mouthguard would cost over $200, given the materials used, production time and the level of personalisation, with each mouthguard incorporating both upper and lower teeth impressions.

“We use the lower impression to indent the mouthguard so you get a resting position that’s a lot more comfortable. Given how it interlocks, the mouthguard will also protect the lower teeth and jaw from breakage.

“This has been a great project to be involved in,” Stephan says. “Our students have put a lot of effort in, and it’s particularly exciting to see our Indigenous dental students so passionate about supporting this initiative,” Stephan says.

The initiative is part of JCU Dentistry’s broader commitment to social accountability and producing dental practitioners who are passionate about making a difference in underserved communities.

“It's great to be able to show our students what we can achieve and how we can contribute positively. There’s more to it than seeing patients in the clinic, it’s taking dentistry out into the community,” Prof Abbott says.

“We regularly outreach to various organisations, schools and community groups. That’s how this whole project with AFL Cape York House came about, by visiting the facility and seeing a need. It’s wonderful to contribute to an organisation that is doing something so positive for Indigenous communities in the Far North.”

The team are hoping to expand the project further in 2023, and in the meantime are also using the grant funding to improve the oral health of disadvantaged community members. JCU Dentistry is currently partnering with Wheels of Wellness to run a pilot program providing dentures to people affected by homelessness in the Cairns region.

JCU Dentistry academic and clinic staff with the new mouthguards
Technician Stephan preparing a mouthguard
Left: JCU Dentistry academic and clinic staff with the new mouthguards. Right: Prosthodontic Technician Stephan shaping a mouthguard.

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