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Alberta dental hygienists have ‘critical role’ in Canadian Dental Care Plan: association

Seniors aged 70 years and older have been able to get coverage under the Canadian Dental Care Plan (CDCP) since May 1 but only around 9,000 oral health care providers have signed up to provide care under the plan.

Dental hygienists say they will play a critical role in the plan, especially for people with dentists who haven’t signed on.

Ron Bedu, a 77-year-old Calgarian, was thrilled to be able to take advantage of the Canadian Dental Care Plan as soon as it became available for people in his age bracket.

“It’s such a wonderful blessing for everyone, but for us seniors who are low income it is especially awesome,” Bedu said.

But Bedu is seeing an independent hygienist instead of a dentist this month.

“Dental hygienists are awesome. Whether they work at a dental office or an independent clinic they’re fantastic,” Bedu said. He’s been going to The Edge Dental Hygiene Centre in Calgary since it opened in 2008 but says he still goes to a dentist for more complex work.

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A change to Alberta’s Health Professions Act years ago meant patients could see a dental hygienist without going to the dentist.

As of 2006, there have been no requirements for supervision for dental hygienists in Alberta.

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The changes resulted in the first stand-alone dental hygiene practices opening in 2007.

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In Alberta, dental hygienists can provide oral health care assessments, oral cancer screening, X-rays, scaling, teeth cleaning and applying fluoride and sealants. Some have mobile units and go to senior homes.

“In Alberta, we are able to provide prescriptions for patients who need them and under the CDCP we also provide cavity arresting treatments using silver diamine and we can do temporary filling restorations as well,” said Melanie Johnston-Dore, a dental hygienist and co-owner of the Edge Dental Hygiene Centre.

She says she’s been hearing positive feedback from patients and she’s been pleased with the rollout of the federal plan.

“The processing and the claim submission has been very quick. Payments have been very fast from Sunlife. We have had a lot of seniors who have not been seeking dental care in the past –  people who have, with the rising cost of life in general, have had to put oral care last. They are very thankful,” Johnston-Dore said.

However, provincial dental associations across Canada have raised concerns about the CDCP, arguing the national program requires dentists to agree to unnecessary terms and conditions.

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“We were very disappointed when the program rolled out in May because there are 1.3 million patients who are waiting but not much participation from providers and that’s because the program has been rushed,” said Jenny Doerksen, president of the Alberta Dental Association.

As of July 8 this year, oral health providers will be able to directly bill SunLife Insurance for services provided on a claim-by-claim basis without formally signing up for CDCP.

“We did a recent survey among our members last week and there is still the majority of dentists not participating because there’s a lot of information not being given to us,” Doerksen said.

She says the association recommends that patients should rely on a dentist to diagnose their oral health than a hygienist because they have more training.

“We strongly recommend patients to get a checkup or examination diagnosis by a dentist who has the ability and training to provide the solution for their problems,” Doerksen said.

“Hygienists have a limited scope of practice. It also reduces confusion because patients can hear something from the hygienist and when they come to see the dentist we can say different things.”

The Canadian Dental Hygienists Association (CDHA) says the participation of large numbers of oral health professionals will be integral to the success of the plan but independent dental hygienists will “play a particularly critical role in providing the needed preventive oral health care services,” said CDHA president Francine Trudeau in a news release.

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Doerksen said dentists want to be part of delivering affordable dental care to Canadians.

“I think it’s important to understand that this program has been rushed,” Doerksen said.

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