Community Engagement

Bringing free dental care to communities in need

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UBC Dentistry Outreach Volunteers on their way to the Anaham Clinic. Photo: UBC Dentistry

Requiring emergency dental care can be a painful experience. Now imagine that you don’t have a dental plan or access to a dentist in your community. Many British Columbians face financial, cultural or geographical barriers to accessing dental care, and it can have a negative impact on their health and wellbeing.

This pressing need led to the creation of UBC’s Faculty of Dentistry’s Community Outreach Program. Through the program, volunteer dental clinics staffed by UBC dental students, faculty and alumni have been operating in communities across the province, from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver to the First Nations community of Anaham. These clinics provide free dental care to marginalized youth, seniors, immigrants and First Nations communities.

Dr. Bill Brymer, Assistant Clinical Professor in the Faculty of Dentistry, oversees the program. He says it is a win-win for patients who receive care and for students who are able to gain hands-on experience that will shape them as care providers.

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UBC Dentistry Outreach Volunteers. Photo: UBC Dentistry

“We’ve donated $800,000 in dental care to the community over the last five years. But, from my standpoint, the value to the student—you can’t put a price on it,” he says. “They’re going to be exposed to situations, individuals and delivering care that many of them may not otherwise deal with in their lifetime.”

Viktoria Kirsten is a second-year student who regularly volunteers at the clinics in Anaham and Steveston. She says the experience has taught her invaluable lessons that will benefit her in her career.

“Working with patients is a lot different than working in a clinic with a mannequin that doesn’t have emotions or speak to you,” she says. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is how to communicate with patients and how to actually treat a person.”

She remembers one patient at the Steveston clinic, a girl with special needs who came in fearful of dentists. The student at the clinic who treated her was so gentle and comforting that he alleviated her fears and was able to complete the procedure she needed. Viktoria says the girl was so grateful that she invited everyone at the clinic to her Christmas play. She says experiences like this have inspired her to continue to give back to the community while she’s at university and once she’s in her career.

The BC dentistry community has embraced the program, and many alumni who are practicing dentists have volunteered their time at the clinics, seeing patients and mentoring students.  The program was strengthened during UBC’s start an evolution campaign, thanks to generous donations from local dentists. The BC Volunteer Dental Community Fund garnered over $100,000 during a fundraising event at the 2014 annual Pacific Dental Conference Toothfairy Gala.

The fund is helping to sustain and expand the program by covering costs such as supplies, travel expenses, equipment maintenance and staffing. It provided necessary funds to keep the clinics running this fall, when the mobile dental equipment suddenly broke down. Thankfully, the fund covered the replacement costs of the broken equipment, which had reached the end of its useful life.

Dr. Brymer says the experience of participating in the volunteer clinics, which entails these kinds of unforeseen circumstances, helps students learn to think on their feet. The experience also fosters empathy, compassion and cultural sensitivity—important characteristics for a care provider.

“It might shift how they deal with patients for the rest of their lives just having been involved in volunteer programs, he says.”

Thanks in large part to the fund UBC is helping to educate the next generation of dentists with a strong sense of social responsibility.