More than 130 people have signed a petition asking the Yukon government to set up a dental examination room in the Dawson City hospital.
Since the recent death of Dr. Gerald Labine, a dentist who’d been practising in the community for less than a year, Dawson has had no dental services.
“If you need a filling, you have to go down to Whitehorse,” said former mayor John Steins, who started the petition. “A lot of people can’t afford to just hop on an airplane and fly down for an appointment.”
Dawson had a resident dentist, Dr. Helmut Schoener, for about 30 years. Schoener arrived in the community in 1979, attracted by the Dawson City lifestyle, and set up shop in a room at the old nursing station. He said having a facility provided for him was key to making a living in a remote community.
“The population in Dawson is really very marginal to provide a living for a dentist,” Schoener told the News. “The financial aspect in Dawson City was never a priority for me.”
Around 1988, Schoener had to leave the nursing station when his room was taken over for a prenatal class. He moved into a government building on Front Street, and later to a small space in the CIBC building.
“It was truly a little cubby hole, but it was better than nothing,” he said.
When Schoener moved into semi-retirement several years ago, Dr. Christopher Wisniewski, a travelling dentist, began visiting Dawson a couple of times a year. Schoener said he has been coming out of retirement to help people with emergencies.
When the new hospital was under construction in Dawson a few years ago, Schoener approached the government about setting aside a room in the hospital to be used as a dental facility.
He hoped that might attract another permanent dentist to the community.
“If there is a facility in place, there is a much, much higher probability for a younger dentist to go to Dawson,” he said.
Schoener said a room was identified at the hospital, but concerns were raised that it was too close to medical examination rooms.
Before a decision was reached, he said, Labine moved to Dawson to set up a dental practice last year. Then-health minister Mike Nixon told Schoener that the government didn’t want to compete with private business, so the idea was dropped, he said.
At the same time, the visiting dentist stopped travelling to Dawson and the government gave up the rental space in the CIBC building.
But now that Labine has died, Dawson is left with no dentist and no dental facility.
Steins said those who’ve signed his petition aren’t asking for a permanent dentist. They just want a space in the hospital.
“So that, number one, a visiting dentist can come and see patients and, number two, that would enable Helmut Schoener … to come out of retirement and treat emergencies.”
Steins said he has yet to hear anything from Health Minister Pauline Frost or Yukon Hospital Corporation chair Craig Tuton about the issue.
Health department spokesperson Pat Living said most Yukon communities have dental facilities in health centres or schools that are visited by travelling dentists.
But she said dental services are not insured, and the government can’t compete with private business like Labine’s practice.
“When someone shows up and says, ‘I’m going to open a practice in Dawson’ … we can’t prevent someone from doing business,” she said.
Living said the department is now looking at various options to bring the travelling dentist back to Dawson. He might be able to use a space in the hospital or the children’s clinic at the school, she said.
“These are issues that are not going to get resolved overnight.”
Travel from the communities to Whitehorse for dental services is not covered by the territory’s medical travel program.
Contact Maura Forrest at firstname.lastname@example.org