A smile is an invaluable asset.
It welcomes others, can exude confidence and kindness, and presents well in employment opportunities. But when expensive dental hygiene is out of reach for many individuals and the domino effect causes other health problems, it can leave people with little to smile about.
That’s where the TEETH-Community Dental Clinic (TEETH) comes in. The non-profit organization has been offering full-service dentistry, barring implants, for low-income West Kootenay/Boundary citizens since 2014. Their Nelson Front Street clinic also has affiliate dentists in Trail and Castlegar working under their model of delivering care at a 60% fee rate for those in need.
“Mainly we serve the working poor—the folks who are employed but have no coverage. Many are paid close to minimum wage in their service-based jobs in tourism, the restaurant industry, or retail,” explains Pegasis McGauley, TEETH co-chair. “Most low-cost dental clinics just do extractions, but we do a lot of restorative work; we do fillings, crowns, and root canals, emphasizing dental hygiene for our patients, although we certainly do extractions when necessary. We also do dentures.”
To remain a healthy, thriving organization, TEETH recently worked with the Trust’s Non-profit Advisors Program (NPA) to complete an organizational assessment and receive recommendations to improve its capacity and enhance the operations of its Board of Directors. With funding from NPA, TEETH hired a consultant and restructured its board. The consultant helped develop terms of reference for nine committees; create and adopt code of conduct and conflict of interest policies; and generate job descriptions, which have already been used to recruit staff.
McGauley says the funding from the Trust was indispensable. She explains the consultant’s expert advice was integral to assisting TEETH establish greater efficiencies and smoother processes, as well as help define and meet their goals.
“Previously we had a dentist and employee on the board; in the restructuring process, we discovered that this was a conflict of interest, so we moved them off the board and created a more active operations committee,” says McGauley. “Now staff can advocate for equipment needs, which are then reviewed at the board level.”
The clarity the reorganization has brought has been crucial during a surge in patients.
In 2020, the Nelson clinic alone treated 1,889 patients, which is slightly higher than the 1,802 they saw in 2019. The jump in numbers can partly be attributed to the initial COVID-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020. When many other clinics closed, TEETH set up an emergency dental clinic for the general population, delivering 250 urgent treatments and helping 170 patients over the phone.
In addition to providing proof of income, applicants must also be West Kootenay/Boundary residents with a minimum of three months of residency to complete the eligibility assessment.
“I believe everybody deserves service and we’re proud to serve a large population in our communities,” adds McGauley. “People are very grateful when we can help them. We’ve had people cry with joy because they’re so happy to access the care they need. Some of our patients’ oral health gets so bad, they end up getting infections and having to go to the hospital for antibiotics. Coming to us—a clinic they’re more likely to be able to afford—helps prevent circumstances like that.”
While TEETH’s hygienists, receptionists, and certified dental assistants are paid wages in line with industry standards, the dentists who work out of the clinic, or who offer the program from their own clinics, take a significant pay cut. But to many involved, providing this valuable care to their community brings great satisfaction.
“My time at the TEETH clinic has opened my eyes to dental needs even in our affluent country,” says Dr. Kurt Young. “It’s made me aware of the capacity I have to make life better and it’s been wonderful to experience patients’ gratitude.”