Dental health has come to be recognized as a key factor in overall health with intervention at an early age giving children an advantage later in life.
Those factors alone make the return of pediatric dentistry services to West Coast General Hospital a noteworthy accomplishment after an absence of almost two decades.
Less than a year after a pediatric dentistry program was restored at West Coast General Hospital, about 50 local children have benefited.
“In a town this size, that’s quite an impact,” said Ed Francoeur, who chaired the hospital foundation board when the program was restored.
Pediatric dentistry services were lost in the valley due to a lack of surgical resources around the time the new hospital was built, said Dr. Paul Hasselback, medical health officer for Central Vancouver Island. Prior to last June, families had to travel to other centres to obtain pediatric dental services. Sometimes kids went without treatment as a result.
“The re-implementation of the program now makes it a lot easier,” Hasselback said. “We certainly knew that in the Alberni Valley, someone requiring dental surgery was waiting longer. We also knew that wait times for dental surgery were such that some never got around to doing it.”
A few years ago, the hospital’s site manager approached the foundation board, explaining that they had some spare operating-room time and that there was a significant need for pediatric dentistry in the community, Francoeur said. The board was asked if it could come up with funding for equipment and staff training.
Dave Wiwchar, Port Alberni Toy Run chairman, had also approached the foundation offering to contribute to a hospital need that would benefit children. On its 30th anniversary, the Toy Run donated $20,000 — its largest single donation to date — to the foundation for the purchase of dental X-ray equipment and surgical instruments for the program.
Since its inception in 1985, the Toy Run has raised well over $1.5 million for children’s charities. The ride itself has grown to become the largest motorcycle event on Vancouver Island.
“That’s the mandate,” Wiwchar said. “Everything we do is for kids and every cent we’ve raised goes to families.”
He attributes the event’s success to the community with thousands of people lining the route in support each September.
The hospital foundation made up the difference to enable equipment purchase and training for pediatric dentistry. Andy Lemmon, clinical co-ordinator, surgical services at the hospital, said preparation began a year earlier as staff acquired the necessary training. Once the tools were in place they started staff training.
“Back in October of 2016 we started planning and putting nurses through some advanced education for pediatric dentistry. All of my staff have gone through advance education and training for this service and the dentists bring certified dental assistants to help.”
Lemmon acknowledged that it took some time to ensure the program was ready to roll out: “We wanted to do things right.”
Since last June when the program started, dental surgeons have come twice a month from Holly Tree Dental in Nanaimo. The program is staffed with nine operating room nurses and four post-anesthesia recovery room nurses, all of whom are rotated through the program. They treat, on average, six children monthly between the ages of 4 and 12 who have been referred by family dentists for a variety of reasons. That may include developmental delays or extensive dental surgery not available in dental office settings.
“I feel there is a huge need for this and I’m happy we can offer it,” Lemmon said.
There was some apprehension about reintroducing a program with the degree of training required, but that soon gave way once they began receiving their young patients.
“To be honest, our favourite day now is pediatric dentistry day,” he said. “Now it’s like second nature.”
Children with well-maintained and pain-free teeth are more inclined to do well once they have entered school, Dr. Hasselback noted. He attributes improved dental health over time to better access to hygiene and the regular use of fluoride products.
“This is one of the great public health success stories of the last century with better hygiene and good brushing, which wasn’t routine in the past. The norm would have been multiple cavities. Now, 70 percent of children come to school with no evidence of dental caries.”