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Funding changes urged for oral pathology service

New Zealand’ single oral pathology diagnostic service is under funding pressure, and has called for the introduction of central government funding.

The University of Otago’s Oral Pathology Diagnostic Service has picked up much of the responsibility for testing specimens taken by dentists and dental specialists. This provides excellent teaching and research material but running a community diagnostic service is not the University’s core business.

A legislative snafu three decades ago is blamed for the situation which sees pathology laboratories not being funded from the overall health budget to test specimens taken by many dentists.

The Faculty of Dentistry Dean, Professor Mike Morgan says the University has repeatedly called for this funding anomaly to be addressed.  

The service detects many dangerous and life-threatening conditions, particularly oral cancers. And each year over 3000 tissue samples are taken by dental professionals when abnormalities in a patient’s mouth are encountered that require analysis. 

The University says full costing for the tests would be about $300 each, with the service’s total annual cost at near $1 million. Professor Alison Rich, Head of the Oral Pathology Centre says a small admin fee, based on the number of specimens sent for analysis each year is currently charged back to professionals ordering the test – a cost often passed on to patients – but increasing these fees could have fatal consequences by causing the clinician or the patient to hesitate and not take a biopsy. However, the University is funding a new patient and workflow management system for the Oral Pathology Centre and the billing system will have to change. This will involve a charge per specimen, based on the degree of complexity of the case, and will be billed to the clinician monthly.  Clinicians will be advised about the details of the charges in due course. 

Last year, Professor Morgan, Professor Rich, Professor Paul Brunton, the Pro Vice Chancellor (Health Sciences), and Professor Harlene Hayne, the then Vice Chancellor, Otago University, wrote a joint letter to, the then, Health Minister Hon Chris Hipkins, seeking urgent government funding of dental biopsies.  

The University has stressed that the service does not face the axe, and will continue to be funded, but other core university functions would suffer. 

The Ministry of Health said they are “working on this issue” and cited “competing priorities” as a factor. 

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