The rise and fall of dental therapy in Canada: a policy analysis and assessment of equity of access to oral health care for Inuit and First Nations communities
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BACKGROUND: Inequality between most Canadians and those from Inuit and First Nations communities, in terms of both access to oral health care services and related health outcomes, has been a long-standing problem. Efforts to close this equity gap led to the creation of dental therapy training programs. These programs were designed to produce graduates who would provide services in rural and northern communities. The closure of the last dental therapy program in late 2011 has ended the supply of dental therapists and governments do not appear to have any alternative solutions to the growing gap in access to oral health care services between most Canadians and those from Inuit and First Nations communities. METHODS: A policy analysis of the rise and fall of the dental therapy profession in Canada was conducted using historical and policy documents. The analysis is framed within Kingdon's agenda-setting framework and considers why dental therapy was originally pursued as an option to ensure equitable access to oral health care for Inuit and First Nations communities and why this policy has now been abandoned with the closure of Canada's last dental therapy training school. RESULTS: The closure of the last dental therapy program in Canada has the potential to further reduce access to dental care in some Inuit and First Nations communities. Overlaps between federal and provincial jurisdiction have contributed to the absence of a coordinated policy approach to address the equity gap in access to dental care which will exacerbate the inequalities in comparison to the general population. The analysis suggests that while a technically feasible policy solution is available there continues to be no politically acceptable solution and thus it remains unlikely that a window of opportunity for policy change will open any time soon. CONCLUSION: In the absence of federal government leadership, the most viable option forward may be incremental policy change. Provincial governments could expand the scope of practice for dental hygienists in the hope that it may support enhanced access, consumer choice, and efficiency in the delivery of oral health care to Inuit and First Nations communities in Canada.
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