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abdullah shihipar

Abdullah Shihipar is a Toronto-based freelance writer

In university, I had just learned that my student health plan covered dental care and so I went to the dentist's office to get a cleaning – for the first time in more than a decade. The dentist was dismayed at what he saw and lectured me about the importance of getting my teeth cleaned routinely. Visiting the dentist more often, he said, would have prevented the build up of plaque on my teeth.

I agreed with what my dentist had to say, going to the dentist routinely probably would have improved the state of my teeth. But like six million fellow Canadians, I had avoided going to the dentist for a simple reason – I couldn't afford to do it. For those who don't have dental insurance, going to the dentist for a routine cleaning is a luxury. For large families, even the price of a simple procedure can start to add up. Treatment is only sought when it is absolutely necessary and even then, people go to great lengths to get the best price available.

This is what Melissa Lopez, a mother from Whitby, Ont., did when she found out her daughter had nine cavities a year ago. After consulting with one dentist, Ms. Lopez visited another dentist's office to get a second opinion; that dentist found fewer cavities and so she decided to get the work done there. Then, this past June, as reported by the CBC, she received a call from the Children's Aid Society advising her that she had been reported by the first dentist, for "possible oral neglect" of her child.

According to the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario, the dentist had to report Ms. Lopez under the auspices of the Child and Family Services Act. While she did not have dental insurance, she ultimately was able to pay for the procedure that her daughter required. But what if she couldn't? What if another parent was unable to pay for a necessary procedure? Should they be punished for not having the means to pay for it?

Oral health care is extremely important to our overall health and it is therefore imperative that all problems with our teeth be taken care of. It's not just yellow teeth and plaque – dental problems can develop into gum disease, serious infection and oral cancers. Some dentists, like the one Ms. Lopez dealt with, recognize the serious nature of these issues, but go on to attribute them solely to the individual and their poor choices. The sins here lie not with the individual, but with the system.

Despite being recognized as a key component of health care, dental care is still administered as if it is an unnecessary cosmetic procedure; privately funded and excluded from medicare. This is not the case in other countries; places like Finland and Sweden include dental care as part of their national health programs. If the goal of a universal health care system is to ensure that people have access to essential health care, then dental care must be part of that coverage. We cannot have a society where only the rich are allowed to have good teeth, while the teeth of the poor rot.

Dentists have historically not been on the right side of history in this fight. When medicare was originally being debated, some Canadian dentists voiced opposition to the inclusion of dental care into the provisions of the program and were successful at keeping it out. But that can and needs to change – if Canadian dentists want their patients to have better teeth, they need to be at the forefront of the fight for universal dental care. It's a simple concept; if people have access to dental care, they will use it.

Introducing universal dental care is the only way to erase the disparities that exist in care and ensure that everyone is able to keep their teeth clean and healthy. It is high time that we push for it.

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