New dental clinic for foreign workers

Dr Lewis Lee of Robertson Choo Oehlers Lee & Lye co-heads the volunteer team at HealthServe’s new dental clinic that opens in Geylang today. The team will start off with one session every Wednesday evening. For foreign workers who are out of work, the services will be free.

Construction worker Kan Guohui is having trouble sleeping. His toothache, he said, makes him feel like his mouth is "on fire".

But the 49-year-old, who hails from Anhui province in China, is adamant that he does not want to see a dentist. "Do you know how expensive that is in Singapore? I'll just try to get some antibiotics and maybe it will go away."

For foreign workers here, a dental visit is often the last thing on their minds - until something goes wrong. Even then, many prefer to bear the pain, rather than pay for expensive dental treatments.

To tackle the dearth of affordable dental care for these workers, migrant workers' group HealthServe will open a new dental clinic at 1, Lorong 23, in Geylang, today.

It will offer foreign workers services such as cleaning, scaling and extraction for just $10, a tenth of the possible cost at private clinics. For those out of work, the services will be free. Dentists at the clinic will also provide their services for free.

Subsidised dental clinics for foreign workers here are scarce. The most prominent one was opened in April last year by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home), which treats maids primarily.

HealthServe will instead target male foreign workers in industries like construction and shipyard.

Its chairman and co-founder, Dr Goh Wei Leong, estimates that one in 20 workers who visits its Geylang clinic for medical consultation also has a dental problem.

Until now, it has not been able to do more than prescribe antibiotics and painkillers.

Under Manpower Ministry guidelines, employers are responsible for the cost of dental treatment for their work-permit or S Pass holders. But Dr Goh said this rarely happens in practice.

"By and large, employers do not look after dental (issues) if they are not life-threatening," he said.

The Home dental clinic, which serves about seven people each Sunday, is closed for two months as it relocates to new premises.

Home operations director Valli Pillai said: "We get calls every other day from people asking when the clinic will reopen. It's good that HealthServe is opening one, too, because with only one day (of operations) in a week, we can't serve all the migrants."

The new HealthServe clinic, which cost about $40,000 to set up, is a modest back room with a second-hand dental chair. Many of the supplies will be provided by eight volunteers, who are all dentists with their own private practices.

Dr David Cheong of Aloha Dental, who heads the team along with Dr Lewis Lee, estimates that they will be able to serve five people each session.

They will start off with one session every Wednesday evening. "But if we get more volunteers... we could expand this to at least another weeknight, and perhaps even a Saturday afternoon," said Dr Cheong.

This will be welcome news to the more than 20 workers who have made dental appointments so far, on a waiting list that grows daily. Bangladeshi plumber Humayun Bepary, 40, is hoping to get on that list.

"My back teeth (have) so many lobang (Malay for hole). But to take them out, it is always money, money, money. After this new clinic opens, I will go."

This article was first published on October 7, 2015.
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