The Alex Dental Health Bus

The Alex Dental Health Bus (DHB) is one of the innovative health programs at The Alex, a non-profit organization known for providing wraparound health and social services for vulnerable Calgarians. Designed to provide onsite support to areas of the city where the highest needs populations exist, this newest member of the mobile health fleet rolled out in January 2013 and has provided oral health services to over 23,000 clients.

After completing an environmental scan of existing oral health services, the program was created to bridge identified gaps and ensure precious resources were not used to duplicate services. Collaborating with Alberta Health Services, high needs elementary schools were selected to receive our Oral Health School Services (OHSS). OHSS includes oral health screenings, education, sealant and fluoride treatments, and referrals and system navigation for those requiring additional dental care. Subsequent to the pilot, Preventative Oral Health Community Clinics offering full hygiene and referral services, atraumatic restorative therapy, and silver diamine fluoride treatment were added.

As the pilot program concluded in June 2013, data revealed a shocking decay rate among the primarily Grade 2 and Grade 6 students seen. Further investigation identified working poor families to be the predominant group unable to access the required basic dental care. As a primarily preventative program that receives no government support, and with severely limited funding, what were we to do? How could we ensure children in need received the care they needed to restore their oral health and well-being?

At this critical point, we were approached by Dr. Matthew Karavos, a dentist in Calgary, who had heard of our program and he asked how he could help. The idea to leverage the oral health community to increase oral health access and equity through social responsibility was born. Dental Access Clinics (DAC) conducted both on the DHB and in private dental offices provide the opportunity for oral health providers to volunteer their time and talent caring for the over 200+ clients on our waiting list. The majority of these clients are from working disadvantaged families. They are either under- or non-insured, with incomes that exclude them from accessing government benefits or dental services. And they constitute the backbone of our community.

Since DAC inception, over 930 clients have received almost $1mil in treatment. Partnerships between oral health providers evolved, and volunteers can now serve in a variety of roles that augment regular DHB programming. As an example, last year over 4,297 students received oral health education, provided primarily by Margo Irons, a volunteer dental hygienist.

Volunteerism has increased the DHB program capacity significantly; in 2017, over 1,834 oral health provider volunteer hours—with an approximate wage value of $111,295— significantly increased service provision for our clients. Not only is this a wonderful opportunity to contribute, it is a fun team-building activity that leaves everyone feeling intrinsically rewarded. Most importantly, it supports people in our own backyard.

Significant systems changes are required to increase oral health access and equity for Albertans. Meanwhile, engaging oral health care providers promotes social responsibility within our community, and greatly contributes to creating oral health equity and access for underserved constituents. Every hour donated, every service provided, every client seen makes a tremendous difference; volunteers are not paid because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.

The upstream results lend themselves to The Alex mission of creating a community of healthy individuals, maintaining our motto “changing health, changing lives.” What’s your mission?

Denise Kokaram, Program Lead @ The Alex

Joahanna Schwartz, Marketing and Engagement Specialist @ The ALex

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