With an influx of refugees coming from Afghanistan and Ukraine, dentists are seeing more young patients struggling with severe oral health problems caused by years of lack of preventative care.
Dr. Brad Krusky is a pediatric dentist who has many patients coming to Canada as refugees.
“A lot of the kids come with active infections,” said Krusky who works at the Sayahh City Kids Dental Care office in northeast Calgary. “They will come with cavities that we would normally see in kids that simply do not have access to dental care.”
One of the biggest barriers he’s seen is language, education and families struggling to navigate government dental programs.
“A lot of these kids end up on antibiotics over and over again. A lot of them will end up in the hospital, in the emergency room with worse pain,” Krusky said. “Unfortunately there are better ways that we could deal with it clinically than is being done right now.
“In my opinion, if the funds were not directed at the individual families themselves but rather injected into the system that already exists, especially provincially, I think we’d be able to do a lot better.”
Krusky said pediatric dentists spend a lot of time putting out fires and dealing with problems that have become so bad they require surgery because of a lack of routine care.
He said refugees are likely to be covered under government plans but it’s typically limited to emergency care and pain only.
Krusky said the dental programs typically only covers emergency care. Dentists have the option of using sedation or general anesthetic but that comes at a cost to the family. He worries that all it takes is one bad experience at the dentist to turn children off going for a lifetime.
He said there are some aspects of the refugee dental program that needs some adjustments, such as including coverage of sedation.
“A lot of these kids are very young. A lot of them don’t have a grasp of English. They don’t understand what we are doing or why we are doing it,” Krusky said. “In the case where a child has a lot more work to do and they are very small, it’s very hard to do that work while they are awake.
“If the program covered the cost of sedation or the cost of the general anesthetic facility, then we would be doing these kids a lot more good because we would not only be providing the care, but we would be doing it in a more humane way,” Krusky added.
“We do our best to do things that don’t hurt, but even if they don’t hurt, they still feel funny and sound funny and it’s just really difficult for these kids to understand what we are doing. Unfortunately, it can create that one negative experience that makes people afraid of the dentist for the rest of their lives.”
A spokesperson for the Alberta Dental Association said refugees have basic dental coverage with government programs but it needs to be promoted.
“It’s a real challenge. Obviously, they have primary things like food and a place to stay on their mind first. These dental concerns are secondary, but it is important because eventually, something will happen,” said Dr. Bruce Yaholnitsky, who is a Calgary periodontist.
Yaholnitsky said Alberta dentists have been providing free service but that’s not a sustainable solution in the long run.
“It was the same when the Syrian refugees came to Canada. There was a lot of outreach by Canadian and Alberta dentists. They are doing work for free,” Yaholnitsky said. “They are just trying to help people, and often that gets overlooked by the government and other stakeholders.
“It’s often kept close to the heart and it’s not something you brag about. It’s just something you do because you need to do it.”
Krusky said the provincial programs that are currently in place are a bit simpler to navigate than the federal ones.
He added there needs to be funding that is provided where there are less restrictions on how the funding can be used.
“I think it would also be simpler if the reimbursements were done through the dental practice themselves like we currently do through private insurance and other government programs,” Krusky said.