Many northern B.C. residents face long drives to access emergency dental care

A shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) has forced most dental clinics in northern B.C. to close, meaning residents either need to wait for their dental appointments, travel hundreds of kilometres to the nearest emergency clinic or, in severe cases, head to the nearest hospital. 

According to the B.C. Dental Association (BCDA), only five out of 175 clinics in the north are open: two in Terrace, one in Prince George, one in Fort Nelson and one in Fort St. John. 

This is not welcome news for people like Tanya Jenson of Prince Rupert, who was forced to visit the local hospital’s emergency clinic due to pain from a damaged tooth. 

“The pain was so unbearable,” Jenson said. “I’d taken every kind of painkiller … on the shelf that you can buy. It’s such a pain that you almost want to pull your own teeth out.”

Jenson had been told to go to the emergency dental clinic in Terrace, about 140 kilometres away, but she doesn’t own a car and couldn’t find a ride — a task made even more difficult by physical distancing rules.

Only dental emergency treatment clinics open

Clinics across the north — and the rest of the province — closed after the College of Dental Surgeons issued a statement on March 16 strongly recommending that all elective and non-essential dental services be suspended to contain the community spread of COVID-19. 

The few that have remained open are only doing emergency procedures. Those cases include patients that are experiencing acute pain, trauma, or uncontrollable swelling or bleeding that cannot be managed with medication.

“We know it’s not the ideal care plan because we don’t have these clinics set up in all of our northern communities,” said Emily Feldhoff, president of the Northwest Dental Society and northwest representative on the BCDA. “But really this lack of very valuable PPE is sort of what is dictating our approach at this present time.”

Feldhoff said that having the appropriate PPE is critical to dental work being conducted safely. This includes all of the equipment necessary in any other medical environment, including N95 masks, gloves, gowns and cleaning materials. 

Safe spaces to operate

A safe operating environment is also necessary, and can be especially challenging in a dental facility.

Dentists operate inside patients’ mouths and the drills and suction devices they use can propel water droplets into the air. 

As a result, the few clinics that have remained open have been retrofitted so the air can be cycled out of a sealed area after each procedure. Patients are carefully screened and appointments are spaced out so there is no overlap and a reduced chance of potential spread. 

“We’re acting very cautiously and taking very good health histories of patients,” said Kris Falk, owner of Cedar Coast Dental in Terrace. “Finding out what they’ve been doing, where they’ve been.”  

Ultimately, the large distances between emergency clinics in the north make it difficult for people like Jenson to get treatment.

Feldhoff said that while it’s unfortunate, the pandemic situation dictates that dentists in the north do the best with what they have. 

“We really feel for our patient base and we know that we’re a really vulnerable population here in the north,” she said. “We’re just as keen to get back to regular work to help these people.”

Feldhoff said anyone experiencing pain or discomfort should contact their local office first for a phone assessment from their dentist.

To hear the complete radio story on Daybreak North about challenges accessing dental services, tap the audio link below:

The CBC’s Matt Allen investigates the difficulty of seeing a dentist during physical distancing. 11:04


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