Bringing oral health to the community
By Mike Shulman
February 27, 2014
For Marie, a trip to the dentist used to mean one thing: pain.
It had been 10 years since the 74-year-old retiree had visited a dentist.
Marie was raised in a low-income family that couldn’t afford to pay for her appointments. So, in an effort to save money, her childhood procedures were done without anesthetic.
“I still remember it,” she said. “And the memories come back as soon you got to a dentist. You remember everything.”
Last year, Marie sought treatment through the Dental Outreach Community Service (DOCS) project.
DOCS provides free dental care to low-income families in the London community. Students from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry treat patients — under the supervision of professional dentists — off-site at the Limberlost Chaplaincy; Boys’ and Girls’ Club of London; Glencairn Community Resource Centre; Southdale Chaplaincy; Salvation Army at Westminster Park; and on-site at the university clinic, for more complex operations.
Marie, who cannot afford dental care, came in to get her tea-stained teeth cleaned.
And despite her fears, the dentists at DOCS put her at ease.
“You feel more relaxed here,” she said. “The people here are very sensitive to body language. If you tighten up your hand or if you jerk, they notice it right away. And I think that’s really nice, because they’re thinking about you as a human being — not a rag doll.”
In 2004, Dr. Ken Wright approached Western colleagues to see if they would be interested in creating a program that would provide basic dental care to residents of the Limberlost area of London.
DOCS would offer patients in the neighbourhood, which had a large refugee and immigrant population, treatment in the university clinic, during the day, for a reduced price.
After three years, DOCS began experiencing a decline in the number of returning patients. Wright realized changes were needed to better address their low-income patients.
Wright, an alumnus of McGill University, had read about the university’s dental outreach program, in an alumni newsletter. The program had run successfully for 10 years.
Hoping to learn from their program, Wright embarked on trip to Montreal. At McGill, they had begun treating patients in the evenings, at locations within the community, using portable dental equipment.
Organizers at McGill realized because many of the patients were poor, refugees and immigrants, and many had limited experience with dentists, you could make them feel more at home by bringing the treatment to them, Wright explained.
“The concept was that if they were more comfortable … they wouldn’t be intimidated by the institution, and they seemed to welcome the idea when things were more in their own environment,” he said.
Wright oversaw a radical overhaul to DOCS in 2008 — just four years after its launch.
Now, the treatments themselves are free, but in an effort to further help the clients, many of the sessions were also shifted to Saturdays, or weeknights, so patients don’t have to miss work or sacrifice any of their wages.
DOCS now brings eight mobile dental chairs and an X-ray machine to outreach events at numerous locations throughout London. During weekend sessions, about 40 patients are treated in just a few hours.
Wright continues to expand the program beyond the treatment of basic dental needs.
They have enlisted the services of eight local oral surgeons who treat wisdom teeth, fractured jaws and oral cancer. Additionally, an endodontist, who performs root canals, as well as an orthodontist, who inserts braces, will take on a couple of patients a year.
“This is something we never thought would be happening, and normally you’d be paying $5,000-6,000 a year for orthodontic treatment,” Wright said.
Working alongside the dentists and specialists at outreach sessions has also proven to be a valuable experience for fourth-year students, and has become an integral part of the curriculum, Wright added.
“We hope this will rub off and that when they get out and practice, they will go out and want to contribute to their community,” he said.
It also gives fourth-year students a chance to interact with patients who have “poor oral health” and might come from different cultures that “don’t understand dentistry,” Wright said. These are patients the students might not normally see in the university clinic and might not even encounter when they first start practicing, he added.
While volunteering at DOCS is compulsory for fourth-year Dentistry students, Wright hopes eventually students at all levels will get involved. Right now, any student can take it upon themselves to volunteer their services.
Nicole Johnson, 26, is a third-year Dentistry student who has volunteered with DOCS for the past two years. She is appreciative of the opportunity.
“I love helping people,” she said. “And these are people that wouldn’t normally get the health care that they need. It really gives them a chance to get the dental treatment they need and, hopefully, get a more positive attitude about going to dentists.”
The hope is dentistry students are left with a lasting impression after volunteering at DOCS, said Wright.
For patients like Marie, who can’t afford dental care, the service provided by the dentists and students at DOCS does more than keep money in her pocket – it brings a smile to her face.
“I was really impressed,” said Marie after her treatment. “I wasn’t afraid to smile.”
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