A file photo of a dentist at work. Destiny Deffo/Wikimedia
Inuvik residents say gaps in service at the community’s only dentist’s office are affecting their health.
Since April, residents have been flying to Yellowknife to access care, overwhelming at least four of the city’s clinics.
For years, Western Arctic Dental Group has been the only clinic available in Inuvik, with intermittently available dentists who travel up from the south to offer care. But now, residents say the stretches of time without a dentist in town are getting longer.
Western Arctic Dental Group did not respond to a request for comment on the apparent change.
“Even before Covid, dental prevention has been a struggle in the Northwest Territories and since Covid, dental service has been non-existent in many communities,” Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler told the Northwest Territories legislature on Wednesday.
“We as a government need to do better. We need to come up with a better plan to provide these basic services, especially for all our children and youth.”
Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson Matthew Gutsch said the department had been notified in April that “the private dental practice in Inuvik would be closed temporarily.”
“As a result,” he wrote, “Inuvik does not currently have a dentist’s office.”
In that situation, Indigenous Services Canada provides coverage for travel to the nearest provider. For most Inuvik patients, that destination is Yellowknife.
Asked if they are able to meet that extra demand, one Yellowknife clinic said its bookings had been “totally overwhelmed” by Inuvik patients.
“We don’t mind, but the problem is we can’t accommodate them soon enough if they are in pain,” said Junna Gesmundo, office manager at Frame Lake Family Dental. “We are booking into July, August. But we’re trying to accommodate.”
The NWT’s health minister, Julie Green, said on Wednesday the territory was having “real trouble recruiting both dentists and dental hygienists.”
Green said her department issued a request for proposals in March but received no response.
“The result is that we severely underserved by dental health specialists,” she told the legislature.
Green acknowledged that relying on medical travel to meet all dental needs has an impact on preventative care, but said that given the staffing shortages, there aren’t a whole lot of other options.
“If the member has any ideas about how we can do more to recruit dentists and fill those contracts, I’m certainly very interested to hear it,” she said, referring to Semmler.
Gesmundo says the issue isn’t just a lack of dentists.
She says her job would be easier if the Department of Health and Social Services and the Western Arctic clinic improved their communication. She described both parties as being difficult to reach, and said she often receives referrals missing crucial pieces of information.
“Sometimes we’ll get a referral with no treaty number. In order for the travel to be approved by NIHB in Ottawa, we need the treaty number,” she said, referring to the Non-Insured Health Benefits program for First Nations and Inuit patients.
“Sometimes there’s no phone number, no way of contacting the patient. So how can we book them?”
Gesmundo said the back-and-forth as these issues are resolved can mean delays for patients.
“Please, in the future, give us the phone number, the treaty number,” she said. “If we have everything we need in the referral, we can book them right away.”
‘Nothing you can do about it’
Toothache is a condition so famously and uniquely agonizing that before dental care became more widely available, it inspired poems, paintings and sculptures.
Due to the number of nerves in the face and head, and the area’s proximity to the brain, the experience can be overwhelming.
As Shakespeare put it, “there was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently.”
But for the past few months, Mabel Lennie’s two children have had no choice.
The family’s difficulties began when their teenage daughter began mentioning dental pain earlier this year. Lennie tried to have her seen by a dentist, but quickly found it was impossible.
“We only have dentists for certain lengths of time. Any time I’ve tried to book her here into the Inuvik Dental, while there was one here, it was always booked up, or they took off even before the appointment,” Lennie said.
Then, her six-year-old son began complaining he couldn’t eat on one side of his mouth. As the issues trying to book an appointment continued, Lennie finally resorted to bringing him to the emergency clinic.
“They told me the severity of his cavity,” she said. “It was bad.”
Her son had developed an infection that would require significant treatment. That sounded pretty urgent to Lennie, but she knew how long delays for dental treatment could be, so she resigned herself to waiting for at least a couple of weeks.
“A couple of weeks went by. I followed up with the Inuvik hospital, who said they sent the referral, but I was never called about it.”
Over a month later, they’re still waiting for treatment. Lennie ended up booking the appointments for both kids herself, which are scheduled in Yellowknife later this month.
“It’s really discouraging,” she said. “I would have done anything to get my son the work he needed done. It didn’t have to come to this. You’re watching your kids in pain and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Lennie says dental care is especially important in the North, given the additional challenges around food sovereignty and cost of living.
“It’s so hard to even get just your basic needs met around healthy eating. I’m originally from Paulatuk, and you see a lot of people buying junk food more than healthy food because you have to resort to that, because of the prices,” she said.
Her son currently can’t eat solid foods and is surviving on a combination of Jell-O and yogurt – anything that won’t exacerbate his pain.
Lennie says she is thinking twice about continuing to live in Inuvik.
“When your son is telling you he’s tired of being in pain and he can’t chew, and you hear that there’s no dentist in town and we’re not sure when they’re ever coming back, it’s like, oh my god,” she said.