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How can all Canadians get good dental care? New U of T free clinic aims to figure it out

Up to 2,000 GTA families will soon be able to get free dental care at a new clinic. At the same time, they’ll also be participating in research aimed at making sure that every Canadian has access to dental coverage, and that such charity is no longer necessary in the future.

University, Green Shield Canada creating dental public health research program

Dr. Carlos Quiñonez, an associate professor of dentistry at the University of Toronto, is part of a new dental clinic and research program launched by the school and Green Shield Canada. (Carlos Quiñonez)

Up to 2,000 GTA families will soon be able to get free dental care at new clinic. At the same time, they'll also be participating in research aimed at making sure every Canadian has access to dental coverage, and that such charity is no longer necessary in the future.

The clinic is the centrepiece of what's being billed as the largest-ever dental public health service and research program, opening Tuesday at the University of Toronto.

Funded by a $6.15-million donation from Green Shield Canada, the clinic and research program will be run by the U of T Faculty of Dentistry. Along with providing cost-free dental services, the clinic will allow researchers to investigate the long-term impacts of having access to quality care.

"We know that there's a clear connection between having poor oral health and having worse systemic health conditions," Dr. Carlos Quiñonez, a dental public health specialist, associate professor and program director at U of T's Faculty of Dentistry, said in an interview.

Health disorders linked to teeth

According to Quiñonez, there are links between oral health and illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Unhealthy teeth and gums can have an impact on an individual's mental health, self-esteem and quality of life as well.

"Just imagine having repeated toothaches and what that might do that to your ability to function well on a daily basis, or even work," Quiñonez said.

The federal government estimates that roughly a third of Canadians have no access to dental coverage.  

"There's a group here that has fallen through the cracks," said David Willows, the executive vice president of innovation for Green Shield Canada, in an interview.

David Willows, the executive vice president of innovation for Green Shield Canada, says the working poor have fallen through the cracks when it comes to dental care coverage. (David Willows)

Willows says this group is often described as "working poor." Because of the nature of their jobs, they don't have access to dental benefits through work, but also fail to qualify for government assistance.

By serving these individuals and their families, researchers at the clinic will be able to learn more about how having regular dental care benefits their health and overall livelihood.

"We'll be doing the research project around these patients and trying to track their trajectory in terms of their total health and see whether this service really makes a difference more broadly that just in their mouth," Willows said.

Universal dental coverage

Green Shield Canada's donation will fund the clinic and the research for at least five years. The goal of the research is to work towards an eventual permanent solution for the millions of Canadians without access to dental coverage.

In public debate, that solution often takes the form of a national dental care program. As recently as the 2019 federal election campaign, the NDP proposed an $860-million dental coverage program for uninsured Canadians.

Willows says that may not be the best direction, and the research will study any number of possibilities.

"It may not be the grand national program," he said. "Let's be a little more precise. Let's find out who this population is and how we can get them access."

While Quiñonez believes there should be universal dental care coverage, he says it may not take the form of a single-payer system.

"I think starting off with baby steps to help us understand what we might be able to do is better than just throwing out this idea that it's going to be part of medicare. I think it's far more complex than that."

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