The govt’s Dental Relocation and Infrastructure Support Scheme provides funding to dentists to encourage them to practice in remote parts of Australia. Jijesh Nhalila Valappil, the only private dentist in Nhulunbuy, tells his story
When Jijesh Nhalila Valappil first arrived in Australia from Bengaluru in 2007, he had no idea where Nhulunbuy was let alone that he would be working there one day.
Today he is the town’s only private dentist, plying his trade in one of Australia’s most remote communities, 1000km east of Darwin on the coast of Arnhem Land.
This tropical paradise on the Gove Peninsula has become a land of opportunity for Jijesh, who has established a practice there with the assistance of a new Federal Government program—the Dental Relocation and Infrastructure Support Scheme (DRISS).
DRISS has provided him with the funds to help set up his new business, Gentle Dentist Gove, providing much-needed private dental services to Nhulunbuy’s 3,000 people.
Jijesh is in Nhulunbuy each week working two to three days treating mine workers, teachers, hospital staff and people employed in local Indigenous communities.
“The tropical environment is beautiful here,” he says. “Everyone knows each other and you feel very connected to the community.”
Since his arrival, Jijesh has also generated extra employment for two dental nurses who have been supplementing their income with part-time work. This has led to some unusual booking arrangements.
“They are Gove locals and they work at the supermarket and also one of the nurses works at the pub,” explains Jijesh. “Everyone knows they work for the dentist so they just ask them for an appointment in the street, at the checkout or over the counter at the pub.”
There are other signs that the dentistry is different in this corner of Australia.
For example, members of the community are happy to see a dentist unlike many of their counterparts in urban jungles like Sydney and Melbourne.
Jijesh thinks it has something to do with the tropical lifestyle. “It’s certainly a lot easier when your patients are relaxed,” he says. “They’re a lot easier to treat.”
The fact that Nhulunbuy was without private dental services for six months before Jijesh’s arrival from Brisbane may also explain the warm welcome.
Locals suffering toothache were booking themselves on flights to Cairns, Bali and beyond in order to get treatment.
Jijesh came across the problem by chance while travelling with a friend in Queensland. He was in Cooktown where he saw a story about Nhulunbuy’s dental plight in a local newspaper and decided to do something about it.
Ever since opening his Nhulunbuy practice in 2013, the appointment book has been full and Jijesh is busy dividing his time between here and his other clinic on the Gold Coast.
“The lack of dentistry in the Gove area had built up quite a list of patients who had lots of work that needed to be done, and rather urgently,” he recalled in a recent interview with Bite dental magazine.
“The worst I can remember is a patient who needed 15 fillings and seven crowns and the removal of six teeth. His entire mouth was a mess,” he says.
Fortunately, cases like these are now the exception rather than the norm, with Jijesh relishing the challenge of making a difference to the town.
“I am finally seeing a change, and now 40 per cent of the appointment book is people returning to get their teeth cleaned or for follow-up work,” he says.
And what does the community think? One simply needs to see the latest posts on the ‘Gove Noticeboard’ Facebook site.
“Awesome service this practice provides,” writes Dolina.
“Sensational team, we highly recommend,” writes Nat.
Clearly, there are smiles all round now in Nhulunbuy.
The writer is Communications Manager, Rural Health Workforce Australia
The DRISS drill
The Dental Relocation and Infrastructure Support Scheme is an Australian Government initiative managed by Rural Health Workforce Australia. It provides grants up to $370,000 for relocation and infrastructure to individual private dentists moving to rural areas.
In the first year of DRISS, grants have been awarded to 68 dentists to make the move to rural and remote Australia.
The DRISS steering committee includes representatives from the Department of Health, the National Rural Health Alliance, the Australian Dental Association, the Australasian Council of Dental Schools, and Services for Australian Rural and Remote Allied Health.
The next funding round is open from 23 February 2015 to 27 March 2015. For further details, go to www.rhwa.org.au/DRISS