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Every three minutes, someone visits an Ontario doctor for oral health issues

A version of this commentary appeared in the Waterloo Region Record and the Huffington Post

April is oral health month in Canada. Ads remind us to book an appointment with our dentist for a regular dental exam and to get our teeth cleaned by a dental hygienist. But in Canada’s private dental care system, you have to pay to access both of these oral health services.

So what if you can’t afford to see a dentist or dental hygienist? Well you’re not alone.

Approximately one in six Canadians has difficulty getting oral health care because they can’t afford the cost, they don’t have dental insurance or it’s too expensive to travel to the nearest provider.

In Ontario, it’s estimated that 2-3 million people have not seen a dentist in the past year — the main reason cited being cost.

Ontario has some public dental programs, but only for children under 18 years of age in very low income families.  There’s also a patchwork of basic dental programs for people receiving social assistance. There are no dental health provincial programs for low income adults and seniors.

It’s the most vulnerable people in our communities who don’t have access to dental care: low wage workers and their children; seniors and the institutionalized elderly; new Canadians; and Indigenous people. So it should come as no surprise that these are the groups in Ontario who have the highest rates of tooth decay, dental pain and gum disease.

Oral diseases affect a person’s general health and overall well-being.

There is a link between poor oral health and the severity of chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.  Oral diseases and missing teeth also affect a person’s sense of self-worth and their ability to get employment. It’s tough to look for a job while experiencing dental pain or if you’re missing front teeth.

So what are people doing when they’re in dental pain but can’t afford to see a dentist?

Many people turn to their family doctors in the hope they can get help. Some in desperation try to treat the pain themselves or go to black market dentists who are not qualified to provide dental care.

In 2014, there were almost 222,000 visits to Ontario physician offices for teeth and gum issues.  That means that approximately every three minutes across the province, someone went to a doctor’s office seeking care for a dental problem.

But physicians are not trained or equipped to deal with diseases affecting teeth and gums, so they cannot provide appropriate treatment.

OHIP pays a doctor a minimum of $33.70 per 15-minute patient visit. So these visits added up to at least $7.5 million of additional costs for Ontario’s health care system in 2014 alone, with no proper treatment of the underlying health issue. This is a waste of healthcare resources, physicians’ valuable time and public funding.

It’s time to develop an effective public solution to this oral health care problem. It’s time to acknowledge that the private dentistry model does not meet the needs of low income and vulnerable people. And it’s time to stand firm and say the status quo is unacceptable.

A recent survey by the Ontario Oral Health Alliance found that in communities across Ontario, many private dental practices refuse to accept adults who are on social assistance programs. Many private dentists admit they are frustrated because low income people cannot pay and often miss appointments.

Academic research shows that most people living on low income prefer to be treated in public dental clinics where they are welcomed and valued and don’t experience stigma.

Let’s build on this evidence and work toward the goal of equitable access to oral health care for everyone living in Ontario.

Public health care dollars spent on acute care for oral health in ERs and physician offices would be better spent if invested to expand public oral health programs to low income adults and seniors delivered through models that are truly accessible for the elderly, people living on low incomes, newcomers and Indigenous people.

Such models include delivering services within community health centres, Aboriginal health access centres, public health units and via public mobile dental buses.  In other words, in places where many vulnerable people already access their health and social services. At community health centres, low income people can get their teeth checked while also being referred to other appropriate services, such as diabetes management programs, the mental health team, nutrition programs and primary health care all delivered at the same location.

So this April, let’s talk about how to best meet the oral health needs of people in our communities who cannot afford private dental care — because we all deserve a healthy mouth and smile.


Jacquie Maund is the Policy and Government Relations Lead at the Association of Ontario Health Centres. 

Dr. Hazel Stewart is the Director of Dental and Oral Health Services in Toronto Public Health.  They are both expert advisors with EvidenceNetwork.ca.

March 2017


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.