Working as a dentist in the Queensland prison system, Dr Michael Foley says it was a letter from a patient that reminded him of why he gets out of bed everyday.
"The guy was barely literate, it was written in pencil, and he said, 'Thank you so much for getting dentist Michael in the prison. He's the best dentist I've ever had.'" Dr Foley said.
It is this note and others like it that has driven Dr Foley to pursue the best dental health outcomes for all, no matter their situation, in a career spanning decades.
Now, Dr Foley has been recognised for his efforts, appointed a member of the Order of Australia for significant service to community health and to dental education.
A variety of roles bringing dental care to some of the most disadvantaged communities in Queensland could have landed Dr Foley the honour, but he says it was his work getting fluoride into the water in Queensland that stood out.
"Fluoridated drinking water is God's gift to dental health," he said.
Unlike other states around Australia, fluoride was not added to much of Queensland's drinking water until the early 21st century. Dr Foley fought for fluoride to be added due to the many benefits it provides, including reducing cavities by 25 per cent.
"It was at Indooroopilly state school dental clinic, in the western suburbs of Brisbane, and then-Premier Anna Bligh announced that her government would mandate water fluoridation throughout Queensland, that's the best moment of my career," Dr Foley said.
In the years since, while Dr Foley is no longer a practising clinical dentist, he has continued to advocate for better dental health in various roles within Queensland Health, and supported the next generation of dentists through the University of Queensland School of Dentistry.
Having grown up on a cane farm in North Queensland and attended state schools, Dr Foley said he hoped that dental health shouldn't be a "residential lottery".
"People who have the poorest teeth are living in regional and rural areas, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, which we should hang our heads in shame about," he said.
Dr Foley now lives in Wollongong, with his wife Jennifer Martin, deputy vice chancellor research and innovation at the University of Wollongong, and is completing a PhD researching the factors that affect how parents understand their child's dental health.
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