A dental clinic with a difference

Volunteer dental clinic offers care for community and learning opportunities for dental students

Danica Erickson - 30 April 2023

In November of 2022, a team of University of Alberta dental and dental hygiene students spent five days in Lac La Biche, Alberta getting first-hand clinical experience providing dental care to Citizens Of the Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA).

If you’re picturing a sombre, clinical environment, think again. This community-led clinic did provide dental care, but it was so much more than that: it was a chance for dental students to learn about the need for and value of culturally safe health care, and the power of people working together.  

The origins of this unique health care event was a chance conversation between forward-thinking MNA community members Reagan Bartel, BScN ‘04, MPH ‘19, and Paulette Dahlseide, DH ‘94; one that sparked the idea to find a way to improve oral care for the Métis community who didn’t have access to dental care.  

Bartel, the Director of Health for the MNA, was aware of the link between oral health and general health, and it had been a concern of hers since taking on the role. Bartel also knows  that affordable dental care is difficult for many Canadians to access, and Citizens of the MNA community are no exception. “Métis folks don’t have access to supportive care for any extended benefits,” explains Bartel. “Alberta has a large population of Métis people that are underserved.” Dahlseide, an MNA Citizen who had for many years been providing voluntary assessments and cleaning for people in need, suggested reaching out to her University of Alberta colleague Suzy Depledge.  

Depledge, an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Dentistry and MNA Citizen, had been working with Access for All, an outreach program operated and funded entirely by student volunteers, which was created by U of A dental students in 2019. She contacted the program’s leaders, Adam McCourt, Rachel Liu and Adam Manfrin to organize the initiative. With start-up funding from the Alberta Dental Association (ADA), the team was able to get everything in place and offer the clinic in November of 2022.

In addition to meeting patients in an environment where they could learn more about Métis culture, the students gained an in-depth understanding of the importance of providing a culturally safe environment for community members to access care.  

“I think like anything, there's a difference between learning about it theoretically, and actually practicing it,” says fourth-year dental student Adam McCourt.  "I also think it's a little bit different for rural patients to need to travel into Edmonton to receive care at the university clinic rather than having care in their own community. I felt that it was great to meet them in their community where they feel most comfortable."

Grace Anne Grant, a MNA Citizen who attended the clinic, can attest to the need for this approach to health care. She had avoided going to the dentist for years because of a traumatic experience she had at a dental clinic as a teenager. But after getting a peek at the clinic while helping organize the community lunch and activities in the same building, she decided to give it a try. “The students were dismayed to hear about my previous experience,” she says, “and they treated me with such kindness and compassion. They made sure that I was well taken care of and they did checks throughout the procedure to make sure I was okay.” 

“A lot of the patients would come in for a cleaning to gauge the situation. And then when they're comfortable or they have a good experience with the cleaning then they might say ‘Oh, actually, this tooth has been bothering me. Can I do something about it?’ We found that that happened quite a bit, which was great.” says Liu.   

Community, kin and culture are a big part of wellness in Métis culture, and so the MNA staff worked hard to provide a space for the community to gather while waiting to attend the dental clinic. “The community members said it was a safe space for them. They received very compassionate and gentle care and enjoyed working with the students. Even the children who attended had good experiences, which is pretty amazing because I know for children the dentist can be scary,” says Lisa Vaughn, Community Wellness Manager, and Citizen of the MNA. News of the thoughtful care provided by the students spread quickly: by the end of the clinic, over 60 patients had received care, including some from a nearby houseless encampment, and a waiting list of over 30 people had been created in anticipation of the next event. “They know that these students are safe, they know that they're receiving the care that they deserve. And they're feeling comfortable bringing kookums and aunties and children.“ 

The Access for All team’s next community clinic took place in April of 2023, thanks to additional support from the Alberta Dental Foundation, and the team is looking forward to another positive experience for everyone involved. “To hear laughter coming from a dental clinic is not something you expect. You usually just expect those dental sounds. When we walked in, there was the president of the MNA region where the dental clinic was being held, playing a guitar and singing to folks as they arrived. So it was a gathering that included a dental clinic.” says Bartel.