Filling a Gap

SHINE, a free dental clinic for underserved communities, makes a lasting impression on patients as well as the students who volunteer there

Alix Kemp - 05 January 2017

When Monica Baker lost her job as a veterinary medical assistant, things seemed bad. Then one of her molars started aching, a constant shooting pain in her jaw. Without dental benefits, Baker wasn't sure where to turn for help. "I don't have any savings, and I didn't know what I was going to do." Eventually, a friend suggested she look into the dental programs offered by the University of Alberta.

What Baker found was SHINE, a student-run dental clinic that operates out of the Boyle McCauley Health Centre in downtown Edmonton. Emerging from a 2005 initiative to provide health services to inner-city youth, SHINE (Student Health Initiative for the Needs of Edmonton) provides free basic dental care, largely fillings and extractions, to low-income patients of all ages.

While the care SHINE provides may be basic, the impact it can have on patients is anything but. Oral infections are not only painful but can also be life-threatening if left untreated. Missing or diseased teeth can take a toll on people's confidence and make searching for a job difficult. Dental care isn't covered by Alberta Health Services, so those who are unemployed and without dental coverage may have difficulty accessing even basic services.

Many patients learn for the first time about the basics of oral hygiene at the clinic, setting them on a path to dental health, says Marissa Struik, a third-year dentistry student and one of the clinic's co-chairs. "We have 10-year-old patients come in. They don't brush their teeth, they've never flossed, they've never seen a dentist, and they have to lose their primary teeth because of decay. We hope by teaching them oral-care basics - and by explaining the importance of dental care - we can help save their permanent teeth."

What makes SHINE unique is that it is primarily staffed and managed by student volunteers. Every Saturday, dental students and dental hygiene students co-ordinate intake and provide the majority of care at the clinic, with oversight from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and the guidance of professional dentists who also volunteer their time.

Although working at SHINE isn't a requirement of the dentistry curriculum, the clinic offers students valuable hands-on experience in performing procedures and running a dental practice, while exposing them to patients they might not otherwise see.

Struik began volunteering there in her first year of dental school, working as an assistant. SHINE provided a broader context to what she was learning in class. She could see first-hand how necessary dental care was, especially to people who might not otherwise be able to afford it. "In the first years, sometimes when you're studying medical textbooks you're thinking, 'This is not what I wanted to do.' But it all comes together when you're actually doing dental work," she says.

Now that Struik is in her third year, she is able to pass along her enthusiasm and experience to the younger volunteers - making her involvement all the more gratifying.

The energy of the young volunteers makes visiting the SHINE clinic a positive experience for clients like Baker. "I've always had bad experiences with dentists, but SHINE was different," she says. "The students were friendly. They put me at ease by explaining exactly what was going to happen."

Last year, the team helped more than 300 patients. To help cover some expenses, SHINE's student volunteers host an annual golf tournament attended by industry suppliers, local dentists, alumni and faculty from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. Funds raised in past years allowed SHINE to renovate the clinic in 2011, installing new equipment such as dental chairs, a panoramic X-ray machine and a sterilization unit.

For Struik, volunteering at SHINE has given her a better sense of the way she wants to run her own dental practice. "I've seen firsthand how inaccessible dental care can be to people with a low socio-economic status," she says. "I'm committed to finding ways to change that."

-With files from Stephanie Bailey

SHINE Dentistry provides a variety of free dental services to Edmonton's underserved communities. SHINE gives University of Alberta dentistry students hands-on experience in clinical practice and builds social responsibility.

To learn how you can support SHINE, contact Kim Falconer at 780-492-5929 or