BRISBANE dentist Andrew Teakle stands on the frontline of the domestic violence battle.
He has witnessed dozens of cases of broken teeth, broken bones, and bruised and swollen lips and faces – testament to the force and ferocity of a family bashing.
Women with facial injuries and broken teeth are often more likely to seek dental treatment than see a doctor, placing dentists on the frontline of early intervention.
“Creeps do this to them and yet there is embarrassment, then on top of that there is the physical effect of not being able to smile in public because you are missing teeth or the teeth are broken,” Dr Teakle said.
“If domestic violence is suspected I talk to the patient and encourage them to go further and seek help because there are a lot of support services available.”
Experts have called for dentists to receive increased training to help them support women in crisis.
At a conference “Where the Mind Meets the Mouth”, held in Melbourne last November, psychiatrist Dr Manjula O’Connor delivered a keynote address in which she emphasised the role of dentists as first responders to domestic violence.
“Seventy-five per cent of injuries in these situations happen to the head, face and neck,” Dr O’Connor, who is director of the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health, said.
“If they are in the early stages of working out what to do with their relationship, the dentist is the place where women can go without disclosing or feeling any stigma or shame.”
Dr O’Connor said research showed women who were trying to escape a violent partner often wanted to be asked if they needed help.
Dentists should therefore not fear that they would offend their patients if they reached out, she said.
She called for increased training that taught dental professionals what to look out for if they suspected someone may be a victim of abuse and how to raise the issue during check-ups.
“Absolutely it is needed,” Dr Teakle agreed.
“It can be critical, even a life-saving field.
“I see my role to offer all the support that I can, and to offer help in contacting domestic violence agencies, or police.
“I would do that on their authority, but not without their express permission.”
Dr Teakle does advocate mandatory reporting of domestic violence cases involving children.
He said more needed to be done to teach dentists what signs to look for and how to respond.
“We’re on the frontline. I graduated 21 years ago. Domestic violence was one part of one lecture. That was all the training we had. And that was all about children, not domestic violence amongst adults,” Dr Teakle said.
“Training can be delivered so efficiently, inexpensively and flexibly these days, it doesn’t require expensive conferences.
“It can be a critical field, even a life-saving field.”
With advances in dentistry and the common availability of implants, Dr Teakle said it was possible to restore a person’s damaged teeth close to their natural state.
As well as his day-to-day practice, Dr Teakle has taken direct action to help women who have been violently attacked.
His practice in Brisbane’s Wickham Terrace recently committed to provide $30,000 worth of dental work at no cost to one domestic violence survivor. Other dentists are donating their services in a similar way, often working with doctors, including plastic surgeons to repair extensive facial injuries.
“The person we are treating has missing teeth, fractured teeth, and the violence has been going on for a long time,” Dr Teakle said.
“The jawbone has dissolved away and so we have to build up the bone, place implants and then place teeth on the implants.
“Orthodontic treatment is also required to bring the teeth back into position … and then final cosmetic work to restore the structure and aesthetics of the broken teeth.”
It is complex dental work that Dr Teakle said would take more than a year to complete.
“When we restore the teeth, and the smile, confidence comes back. There’s a sense of self-belief that comes back, and it can be a wonderful transformation,” he said.
“We can’t do the counselling, the legal follow-up and the policing, but what we can do is bring their smile back.”
By Mark Bowling