May, 2020

Dr Harinder Dhanju: Bringing back smile

dr-dhanju-insideThe community at South of the Fraser has a reason to smile. A non-profitable society aims to solve un affordable dental care problem of this region

By Surbhi Gogia

The expensive dental care in Canada prevents many Canadians from visiting a dentist office on regular basis. Families covered under insurance plan can still think of affording dental services. However, it is a nightmare for those without insurance or with low income. In 2010,  a team of dentists brainstormed to find a solution to this problem that pinches every one. They came out with a brilliant idea of the creation of a clinic where low-income individuals and families could receive dental care at reduced costs while all levels of dental and dental hygiene students would  gain additional clinical experience. The students’ fee would compensate this low-fee services.

This laid the foundations of Pacific Oral Health Society in 2010. The man who led the team behind this concept was Dr Harinder Dhanju. Dr. Dhanju, a trained dentist by profession, established first Pacific Oral Health Centre in Surrey under Non Profit Society in association with the University of British Columbia (UBC)in 2013. 

The Centre provides access to care for individuals and families living in the Fraser Valley. Additionally, the facility delivers continuing dental education programs to UBC dental professional living in this region. The main focus is to provide accessible, affordable dental care to individuals and families in demonstrated financial need. The Centre offers a full range of dental services including general and family dentistry; Pedodontics (children’s dentistry); Periodontics (gum treatment), Endodontics (root canal) Dental Implants and Oral Surgery. The centre also provides emergency care services.

Explaining the idea behind this Centre, Dr. Dhanju says, “I have my own private clinic in Newton since 98. I used to witness patients’ frustration about expensive dental services who visited my clinic. I also learned that there were not much means available to the community at the South of the Fraser to meet the needs of dental services in this region. I brainstormed with my Dean Dr Chuck Shuler to solve this issue,” says Dr. Dhanju.

The demand for dental care was tested on December 4th, 2010, when Dr Dhanju organized a small group of dedicated dentists and dental team members to provide dental care in memory of their mentor, Dr. Bud Sipko. 

With limited notice and minimal promotion, the response from the community was overwhelming: over 350 people arrived to receive dental care, requiring that “rain checks” be issued for future appointments. This was an indication that even in a relatively affluent area of Surrey, there was a substantial need for oral health care among those who could not access it through conventional dental care settings.

It became obvious to Dr. Dhanju that this was a problem that was going to require creativity and   significant resources in order to have an impact and be sustainable. Soon, concepts were discussed of establishing an outreach clinic of the UBC dental school in Surrey. Understanding that the support of regional government would help increase awareness of the planned project, Dr. Dhanju and Dean Shuler appealed to the Health Committee, staff and Mayor Dianne Watts of the City of Surrey.

 In July, 2010, Surrey City Council unanimously endorsed their proposal of the Pacific Oral Health Centre. Into its third year now, the Centre treats 1000s of patients every year. It also offers Graduate program, UBC Hygiene graduate program to individuals.

“Every year in Spring we organize free dental day. People wait for that day in which 70,000 dollars worth of services are given free. More than 30 volunteers, hygienists and dentists serve the community. Recently we also organized a free Oral Cancer Screening day in September in association with Surrey Newton Rotary Club. A lot of patients were screened for oral cancer. We diagnosed 25 people with oral cancer and sent them for further follow up,” Dr. Dhanju  says.

He says that the dentists were surprised that people who came for screening were not even aware that there was something wrong with their health. He says that ignoring oral health care is a very serious hidden crisis in Indo-Canadian community. Recently there was a study done by Dr Ajit Aulakh on 15000 patients. And the study found out there are 33% more chances of oral cancer in our South Asian community because of our lifestyle, smoking, alcohol and beetle chewing habits. A dentist can detect oral cancer at an early stage. But people procrastinate their visit to a dentist. He points out two main reasons: expensive dental care services and lack of awareness about importance of oral health.

Dr. Dhanju says people feel that a visit to dentist is required only when there is a pain the mouth. This leads to emergency situations and when people get emergency treatments, they find the fee exorbitant. This fee structure further delays visits to dentists creating a vicious circle. 

The Indo-Canadian community, according to him, does not understand importance of oral health. He says that a person’s mouth is the mirror of the body and can reveal many secrets about his or her physical health. “Your bad breath, canker sore or bleeding gums is not limited to mouth, it means there is something wrong with your internal system and you need to see your dentist,” he says.

He agrees that affording a dentist is difficult for some families with low income. “But I still feel everyone else can afford a dentist. Prevention is not expensive. If you go for your regular cleanings after every 6 months it will cost you reasonable fee according to our association fee guide and will not lead to emergency treatments. When you can afford to buy big houses, expensive cars, why people cannot afford to dentists services. Your mouth is one of the most important part of your body. You eat and breath from your mouth. A lot of bacteria grows in the mouth that needs to be controlled. People do not understand that dental health effects their day-to-day life,” Dr.Dhanju says.

He also feels that along with oral health education, people need more awareness about dentists. “You can go to the BC Dental Association website http://bcdental.organd find a dentist you like. They can also complain about any issue they face with their dentist through this website.”

When asked what are some of the most common issues that bother people about their dentists, he answers it is the expensive fee structure. He says that people think dentists set their own fee structure.”It takes 8 years of rigorous training to become a dentist. The fee is set by a regulatory body and a dentist has to take out the deductibles, co payments. Patients ask for discounts and those with insurance do not want to pay the deductibles. People should understand their obligations before they step into a dentist’s office.”

What bothers Dr. Dhanju most is people not willing to spend on their oral health. “We detect so many patients who keep procrastinating the visit to a dentist and then end up in emergency situation. If they have canker sore or losing taste in their mouth they go to their general physician, where as a dentist is trained to take care of their mouth.”

Dr. Dhanju says “its our social responsibility to look after our own fellow Canadians before we offer help across the borders”

He agrees for the low income families it is difficult to afford dental services. It is for this reason, the Pacific Oral Health Centre offers discounted fee structure. “If a family can prove its income is below 35,000 dollars, POHC  give them 30 to 50% discount depending on the kind of work required.”  

His message to the community is do not ignore oral health. It is integral to your body. 

From his prospective a proactive approach to dental health care will save the overall health care system.  When tooth ache happens at night patients goes to emergency and receive minimal treatment and being advised by hospitals to go to Dentist in the morning. Did ever some one thought about how that person suffering from tooth ache spent all night and look for dentist in the morning. There is a need for 24 hour Urgent Oral Health Care Centre similar to Emergency Medical Services.

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