College of Dentistry students Joanna Tran (second from left) and Brooklyn Park (second from right) observed the oral health team that is part of the Canadian Health Measures Survey,
College of Dentistry students Joanna Tran (second from left) and Brooklyn Park (second from right) observed the oral health team that is part of the Canadian Health Measures Survey,

Students inspired by work of national health survey

The opportunity to observe the Canadian Health Measures Survey's oral health team has strengthened the interest of Joanna Tran and Brooklyn Park in dentistry's role in public health.

The opportunity to watch the work of the Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS) has given two College of Dentistry students insight into how the data will inform public health policies and how it could shape their approach to dentistry.

Brooklyn Park and Joanna Tran, third-year students in the Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) program, spent a day in early March alongside oral health staff as they conducted in-person exams with survey participants in Swift Current, the survey’s only stop in Saskatchewan.

“We got to observe the clinician standardization calibration procedures, clinical exams, and respondent interactions and feedback,” Park said. “We spent a great deal of time interacting with the dentists on site learning about their backgrounds in clinical dentistry, academic dentistry, public health and, of course, their experience working with Statistics Canada.”

The objective of CHMS is to collect information that will improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illnesses and will promote the health and wellness of Canadians. Participants are interviewed and receive an in-person exam in a mobile examination centre.

This CHMS cycle is the first time since 2007-09 that oral health has been part of the survey. In addition to gathering data on such things as a participant’s number of fillings, missing teeth or gingival health, other metrics such as saliva were collected to be used for research into the link between oral health and other systemic diseases and conditions. Dentistry was the only subspecialty to invite student participation and observation.

Both students said the enthusiasm and commitment public health demonstrated by the project’s staff was inspiring. Learning about the professional experience of the three female dentists on staff provided insight into their future career path.

For Tran, observing the survey process was a connection to her previous studies as a dental hygienist, where the significance of statistics collected more than a decade ago was emphasized for its value in guiding public health decisions. She expects findings from this cycle will inform her practice of dentistry and the direction of the profession in Canada.

“From that (previous) data, it was evident that the current Canadian oral health care delivery system had shortcomings in its ability to provide care for its most vulnerable populations,” Tran said.

“Although an individual’s oral health status may be influenced by a multitude of factors, as a hygienist I saw first-hand the consequences that the absence of adequate public dental health services can have on a community. Now, back in school as a dental student, I want to learn as much as I can about public health so I can become a better health-care advocate.”

Park echoes that perspective. As a third-year student who has begun clinical training, she said the relationship between oral health, systemic health, mental/emotional health, and general well-being of patients has become apparent. There is also the realization that finances can be a barrier for some patients when it comes to receiving ideal treatment.

She hopes the oral health data gathered as part of CHMS will guide policy and innovations in the field and support initiatives that will provide better access to care and more preventative programs.

“After this experience, I hope that I can a strong advocate for public health dentists and researchers and the work that they do,” Park said. “As a public health dentist, you don’t have that direct effect of helping patients through directly providing treatment. However, through research, public policy initiatives, and other innovations, you can have effects that reach provincial and national populations. This experience got me excited for the future of the field of dentistry in Canada, in addition to my role in it.”

For Tran, participation provided a better understanding of the complexities of the healthcare system and highlighted areas where she could gain knowledge and experience. She thinks providing dentists with opportunities to learn more about dental public health and other health professions would encourage the incorporation of multi-disciplinary care and better health outcomes.

“In the future, I hope that more students will participate in projects like this, to encourage them to seek out opportunities to learn more about what we, as future policymakers, advocates, and leaders can do for our communities,” she said. “I strongly believe that this survey’s cycle will yield very important data that will influence the future of public dental health policies and education. I’m really proud that we got to participate in it.

“I am excited to see what observations and results will arise from the survey, and how it will influence the future practice of dentistry. The dental profession prides itself on practicing evidence-based dentistry, so this may lead to more opportunities for wide-scale community-based health research, changes in professional education, and changes in the organization of dental services.”