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  • Photograph by 12th St. David

Moving Upstream to Tackle Dental Health

By Jacquie Maund

Chantal had a mouth full of painful rotting teeth due an inherited gum condition. But as a low-wage worker without benefits she couldn’t afford to go to a dentist. When the pain became unbearable she was forced to go to the hospital emergency room. 

 A report from the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences last year found that Chantal is one of approximately 6 million people in Canada who avoids visiting the dentist because of the cost.  Poor oral health affects our overall health with research showing links to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, pneumonia, and Alzheimer’s. And if you are missing some of your teeth or in dental pain it affects your overall well-being, self-esteem, and ability to get and maintain work.

Like Chantal, thousands of people have nowhere to turn but doctors’ offices or hospital emergency rooms. Research by the Association of Ontario Health Centres found that there are about 59,000 visits to ER and 218,000 visits to doctors’ offices each year in Ontario for dental reasons, with an estimated cost of at least $37 million to the healthcare system. But people can only get pain killers there, not treatment to solve the problem.

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Photo by Mikael Wiman

The Canadian Academy of Health Sciences report concluded that private sector dentistry is not a good model of health care provision for vulnerable groups who suffer the highest levels of oral health problems. Only 5 per cent of dental care costs are paid through public programs in Canada- these tend to be a patchwork of federal and provincial programs targeting the needs of specific populations with many people falling through the cracks.  

So what do we need? Government should be investing upstream with expanded public oral health programs and appropriate delivery models to meet the needs of vulnerable populations who face the highest barriers: low-income people, working people without dental insurance, seniors and elderly living in institutions, Aboriginal people, newcomers, people with disabilities, and people living in rural and remote areas.  This is how Chantal was helped when a local Community Health Centre connected her with the dental treatment she needed.

Some progress is underway in Ontario where the government has promised to extend public oral health programs for low-income children to reach low-income adults by 2025.  But, as the Ontario Oral Health Alliance current campaign points out, 10 years is too long to wait if you’re suffering from dental pain and infection.

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Add your voice to support the call to speed up government action, and learn more about the April forum “Needed: A Tommy Douglas for Dental Care” here.

Jacquie Maund is the Policy and Government Relations Lead at the Association of Ontario Health Centres. Jacquie can be reached at jacquie@aohc.org.

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