British Columbia

COVID-19 highlights need for improved dental care in remote communities, hygienist says

Natasha Kellett was the only dental care provider in Haida Gwaii for three during during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it taught her a lot about what's possible when it comes to healthcare in remote communites.

Natasha Kellett was the only dental care provider in Haida Gwaii for three months at onset of pandemic

Haida Gwaii, located off B.C.'s North Coast, had no dentists during the first months of the COVID pandemic, but relied on emergency care from a lone dental hygienist instead. (Attila Kisbendek/AFP via Getty Images)

When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, all of Haida Gwaii's three dentists were away at a dental conference, leaving one hygienist to deal with any dental emergencies. 

The situation forced Natasha Kellett, the only dental hygienist still working on the chain of islands off B.C.'s North Coast, to brainstorm with other health-care professionals to come up with a plan for treating people in need of acute dental care.

"I did what anybody would have done in that situation — everybody at the health centre that I work at ... we all just sort of jumped in and did what we could to help our patients.," Kellett told Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk. 

"I don't think any of us ever thought we would be in a true pandemic situation."

The situation shone a light on a larger issue — access to regular dental health checkups in remote northern communities — because Kellett said the majority of the emergencies she dealt with could have been prevented. 

"We have a lot of challenges accessing dental services even when it's not a pandemic situation."

She said it's been a struggle to maintain the same level of care in Massett, which serves an area with a population of about 2,000, compared to more densely populated communities, but it isn't impossible. 

Collaboration among healthcare professionals

Public health nurses, nurse practitioners, regulatory bodies and the dentists who were stuck off island, worked together to come up with a protocol for consultation, including teledentistry. 

When a patient called Kellett's clinic, or any other dental clinic in Haida Gwaii, they were screened over the phone. Depending on the situation, patients were sent to Kellett's clinic where she would do X-rays and photos of teeth, which she sent to dentists for advice on how to proceed within her scope of practice. If there was an infection, the dentist would call in a prescription. 

"Then we at least had a tool that could help us navigate and explain to patients what we could and couldn't do and what our limitations were," Kellett said. 

"Patients were very receptive to this. They seemed very appreciative of the fact that we were trying our best to help them manage their situation. Overall the response was very positive."

The Ministry of Health told CBC it is taking steps to make sure people in all areas of the province, including remote communities, have better access to day-to-day healthcare services by bringing healthcare professionals together to deliver care, creating primary care networks and opening urgent and primary care centres.

"Increasing access to care through regulation is a big piece," Kellet said.  

"There's a lot of regulatory layers that need to be navigated through more collaboration with others and within the dental profession, as well as increasing what services we can offer within our own clinic here in Old Massett."

With files from Daybreak North