Cavities in the communities

For 30 years, Dr. Ron Pearson travelled to Watson Lake to fill cavities and cure toothaches. But at the end of the month, the Whitehorse dentist's funding is coming to an end.

For 30 years, Dr. Ron Pearson travelled to Watson Lake to fill cavities and cure toothaches.

But at the end of the month, the Whitehorse dentist’s funding is coming to an end.

“In the past, the department (of Health) … helped offset the cost of travel to rural communities for the provision of adult care when no resident dentist was present,” says Health’s community health programs director Cathy Stannard in a March 7th letter to Pearson.

“The funding for this service will be coming to an end March 31, 2011.”

It’s short notice, said Pearson.

For the last few years, Pearson was already losing money on his trips to Watson Lake – even with the government travel subsidies.

“All they paid was mileage and accommodation,” said Pearson.

The cost of maintaining a clinic in Watson Lake, including heat, electricity, phone and dentistry equipment, came out of Pearson’s pocket.

And every trip to Watson Lake ate up two unpaid driving days, which could have been spent servicing patients in Whitehorse.

But Pearson continued to go to Watson Lake.

“I’ve been losing money for years,” he said.

“But when you’ve done it for 30 years, it just becomes a habit.”

This year, hoping to pull himself out of the hole, Pearson asked the government for help to cover his ongoing expenses in Watson Lake, including his clinic’s rent and heating costs.

The government’s response came as a surprise.

“They came back and said they were cutting all support, and they only gave me two weeks’ notice,” he said.

Now, Pearson is pulling the plug on his Watson Lake practice.

He’s already called the clinic’s landlord to give notice.

And he’s shipping his equipment back to Whitehorse and putting it in storage.

“It’s a loss for the community,” said Pearson.

As it was, Watson Lake was receiving “MASH dentistry,” he said.

“There were massive amounts of dental decay.

“And you’d see someone for one thing, and there’d be five other things they needed done.”

Pearson used to get to Watson six times a year, but in the last few years it dropped to two, one-week visits annually.

That’s not enough, he said.

“And now, they’ve given us the boot.”

Pearson and a host of local dentists used to visit most of the Yukon’s communities, including Teslin, Mayo, Carmacks, Beaver Creek, Old Crow and Dawson City.

But the government doesn’t seem interested in dealing with local dentists anymore, he said.

“They changed their policy and started bringing in dentists from Outside.”

Today, three dentists from Quebec service most of the Yukon’s communities.

Dr. Christopher Wisniewski – who wouldn’t say where exactly he was based in the US – has been servicing Dawson and Old Crow since 2007.

Wisniewski used to visit the communities a lot more than he does now.

There used to be more funds available, he said.

Now, his visits are limited to twice a year.

“That’s hopelessly inadequate,” said Dr. John Stern, who works with Pearson at the Klondyke Dental Clinic.

In 1979, Stern began co-ordinating Whitehorse dentists’ community visits.

“The government funded any visits to the communities we wanted to do,” he said.

Whitehorse’s dentists spread out across the territory, visiting all the communities on a regular basis.

Smaller communities like Beaver Creek used to get two dental visits a year, while larger places like Carmacks and Teslin used to see a dentist up to four times a year.

Now, Teslin doesn’t see a dentist at all, said Pearson.

Dawson and Watson used to get at least six dental visits a year.

“But the government would fund up to 11,” said Stern.

Dawson is a really booming place, and now, for it to only have two dental visits a year “is really draconian,” he said.

“It’s very busy,” said Wisniewski.

“We’re always full.”

Wisniewski would like to come north more often.

“In the past there was more (government) support,” he said.

“Now, there’s less.”

There’s been a shift over the last few years to reduce services, said Pearson.

“We’re seeing this all over – services are cut to save money.”

And the communities are not getting the dental service they deserve, he said.

“How can the government say they are providing dental services when someone goes infrequently and is not providing the service they should be?

“It’s like giving you tickets to the bus, but there’s no bus.”

Stern stopped co-ordinating local dental visits about 10 years ago, after Outside dentists were hired.

“There has been a continuous stream of uninterrupted dental service since I came to the territory (in the ‘70s),” he said.

“And to think that’s all gone….”

Communities are getting one-fifth of the service they were in the past, said Pearson.

The last time he was in Mayo, Pearson stopped in at the dental facility.

“And nothing has changed,” he said.

“They haven’t improved the facility, service is sporadic at best, and there’s no preventative program.”

In Watson Lake and Dawson, dental facilities will be included in the new hospitals.

Pearson was offered the Watson Lake post and, at first, the office looked promising.

There were going to be two rooms, one for the hygienists and one for Pearson.

But plans changed.

Now, if he takes the post, Pearson will be expected to share only one room with the visiting optometrist.

“But we need very different offices, different equipment and even different lighting,” he said.

Also, with only one room, a preventative dental program is impossible, he said.

For a hygienist to work, there must be a dentist in the office – if a hygienist was using the sole chair, Pearson would have to sit twiddling his thumbs.

“It’s just not big enough,” he said.

Despite its refusal to pay travel costs, the Health Department “hopes that you will continue to offer your valuable services to the community of Watson Lake,” Stannard wrote in the letter to Pearson.

But if travel costs are not covered, Pearson won’t be making any trips to Watson Lake’s new hospital.

That the government is no longer covering travel costs for dentists is “simply shocking,” said Stern.

“Are they not funding those Quebec dentists either?”

Health and Social Services spokesperson Patricia Living could not comment by press time.

Contact Genesee Keevil at