Dental therapy program aims to close care gap in Saskatchewan’s north

Andara Puchino

Canada is resurrecting dental education programs that have been dead for more than a decade in an effort to fill a cavity in oral care in Saskatchewan’s north.

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Federal funds will kick-start a new dental training program to fill a dire cavity of care in Saskatchewan’s north.

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Indigenous Services Canada will invest $2.1 million in a dental therapist training program spearheaded by the University of Saskatchewan. Proponents say it will help close a a growing disparity in dental care access between the rest of Saskatchewan and northern communities.

The 21-seat program will be the only source of dental therapists in the country. It’s geared toward Indigenous students, with a goal of letting them learn, live and eventually work close to home.

“We have planned an absolutely unique program with the best features and the best programming that I can think of after 25 years as an academic,” said U of S dentistry dean Dr. Doug Brothwell.

Dental therapists are, essentially, to dentists what nurse practitioners are to family doctors, he said. They are versatile primary care providers whose work can include prevention, clinical treatment and education. That makes them vital in rural and remote communities across Saskatchewan, where the nearest dentist’s office could be hours away.

Canada hasn’t trained dental therapists since 2011, when federal funding was pulled from the last program, based in Prince Albert. A similar provincial program shut down in the 1990s, largely as a result of a change to the province’s dental plan. The supply of therapists has steadily dwindled since then.

“It’s hard now to recruit and find anyone to fill in these gaps,” said Glenda Burnouf, outgoing president of the Saskatchewan Dental Therapists Association. That ultimately widens the health-care disparities in rural communities and First Nations, and efforts to revive a program were unsuccessful, she said.

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“Dental disease is one of the most chronic conditions in the world, and access to care is one of the barriers these populations face today.”

Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) executive director Tara Campbell said some northern First Nations people travel for hours to see a dentist, or wait a long time for one to visit on a rotation. The 34 First Nations that comprise NITHA have long lobbied for a new program to fill the mounting number of vacancies, she said.

They approached the U of S five years ago. Last year, that university and Saskatchewan Polytechnic got $150,000 in federal funding to hammer out a proposal.

The U of S, Sask. Polytech and Northlands College are pooling staff and resources to teach the program at their respective campuses in La Ronge, Prince Albert and Regina. Brothwell said the federal money is for equipment and start-up costs. The program itself will run on student tuition, fees and contributions from partners.

“As long as there is sufficient student interest, this will be a self-sufficient program,” Brothwell said.

As long as there is sufficient interest, all students will be Indigenous, though they do not need to be from Saskatchewan. In a release, Indigenous Services Canada said this responds to calls from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to improve Indigenous representation in health-care fields.

The program condenses six terms into two years, with flexibility in mind. Students who leave after a term or a year will still earn a credential they can use to get a better job, and can return to finish the program whenever they want.

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“It’s time to not have a cookie-cutter program where it’s all or nothing,” Brothwell said.

Burnouf said it represents a new hope for her profession.

“We want to see our profession grow again.”

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