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Saskatchewan pilot project aims to re-establish dental therapy for Indigenous communities

A partnership between NITHA, Sask Polytech and USask aims to re-establish a dental therapy program in Saskatchewan. File / Global News

A pilot partnership forged in Saskatchewan aims to re-establish a dental therapy program and improve oral care in Indigenous communities.

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) has awarded $150,000 in seed funding to create a proposal for establishing Canada’s only accredited dental therapy program in Saskatchewan.

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University of Saskatchewan (USask) dentistry college dean Dr. Doug Brothwell said there are overlapping differences and similarities between dental therapists and dentists, which are both needed as a team.

“Dental therapists are a health-care professional group that has an established scope of practice … that includes health promotion, dental disease prevention, oral health promotion, and as well as providing dental care for children and adults,” Brothwell said.

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“Dentists pretty much have all of the scope of practice of what dental therapists do within theirs and then add on to that, some of the more advanced procedures like root canals and dentures and crowns and bridges and that sort of treatment that our dental therapists don’t do, but that some people in the population need to have done.”

Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) executive director Tara Campbell said the National School of Dental Therapy used to run out of Prince Albert and closed roughly a decade ago, ceasing all dental therapy education in the country.

“We’ve been working towards reestablishing program and dental therapy pretty much since the closure,” Campbell said.

“What (NITHA’s) trying to do is ensure that we come from a cultural competence point of view, so we want to provide input into curriculum development so that anyone who’s taking the program knows a lot of the health inequities that Indigenous populations (face).”

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Officials with the partnership made up of NITHA, USask and Saskatchewan Polytechnic said the absence of a dedicated dental therapist program has amplified access to care issues in these remote communities.

“Northern Saskatchewan First Nations, they continue to experience a greater burden of oral health because of their socio-economic disparities like food insecurity, geographic distance from oral health care and a shortage of overall oral health services,” Campbell said.

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“Saskatchewan has the highest rate of children undergoing dental treatment under general anaesthetic in health-care facilities in any province so we’re hoping that dental care therapists will be able to fill the gap to be able to provide a provision of services that will help in the prevention of these types of oral decays.”

“The previous program was discontinued for a variety of reasons … but it certainly was never discontinued because of a lack of need and that amount of need has increased over time since the program closed because a number of former dental therapy grads, a number of them have retired. So they reached the end of their careers … and there have been no new graduates to replace them,” Brothwell said.

“Our hope is that we’ll have the amount of interest and the number of students apply that are appropriately credentialed and able to meet the needs of the program, that we will be able to limit it to Indigenous students only into the first year of the program.”

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Sandra Blevins, dean of Sask Polytech’s schools of health science and nursing, said the two-year program will focus on remote learning and recruiting Indigenous students.

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“We know that there’s a gap in this province and many would say throughout the country of serving Indigenous people, whether it’s because of the remoteness from where others practice or for whatever number of reasons so … trying to take this programming to where the Indigenous people live so that they’ll continue to work and support their communities,” Blevins said.

Blevins said it’s going to take several million dollars to bring the program to fruition.

“I always think the investment in education, though, has far-reaching impacts and when you think of the ill health or the poor oral health of people and the impact that has on their economies or their ability to live pain-free or any of those other things, it’s a huge impact. So this will be a wise investment hopefully made by a number of parties,” she said.

“We have a deadline of March to complete (the proposal) and it’ll go back to the (ISC) … and we’re going to be giving kind of the guidebook for what it would look like and how we would do it and seeking their support as well as provincial support for it as well.”

If the proposal is successful, it’ll be a step towards starting the dental therapy program which is expected to be ready to accept its first students in 2022.

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