UPDATED: Dentist sounds alarm as Burnaby care home closes in-house clinic

Note: This article was updated at 3:30 p.m. on June 30 with comments from the George Derby Care Society.

A dentist is worried the closure of her twice-weekly clinic at a Burnaby long-term care home will lead to a decline in overall health for the seniors who live there.

But an official with the George Derby Centre says the move is part of a suite of changes being made to improve services at the long-term care home.

Dr. Anita Jain has operated the clinic at the George Derby Centre in Burnaby since 2014, but she said she was told to pack up and leave by Monday, June 29.

Jain said the loss of a permanent dental clinic in the long-term care centre is particularly concerning as the COVID-19 pandemic raises serious concerns about the lack of attention given to long-term care in the country.

Along with many services, Jain said her dental clinic closed its doors in mid-March, as the COVID-19 pandemic gained steam, expecting to reopen later.

She sent the centre’s executive director an email to ask about reopening – particularly in light of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s single-site order. Jain was concerned the order could limit the availability of the clinic, given her work in a regular dental clinic.

(She later realized that concern was unwarranted. According to the Ministry of Health, the order only applies to working between multiple long-term care facilities, meaning dentists and staff can work at a regular dental clinic and in a long-term care facility.)

In a letter to the NOW, Jain said she got a response from the George Derby Centre saying that, “in view of the difficulties you note in your email and the continuing challenges we face in operating our facility,” the care home had decided it would close the dental clinic to “explore new directions in the provision of dental services to our residents.”

In an interview, Jain said she had anticipated there would be a delay between when regular dentists opened and when the George Derby Centre’s clinic would open, but she said she was surprised to receive this news.

Casey Cook, president of the George Derby Care Society’s board of directors, said the move was part of a suite of actions intended to improve services at the care home.

“The whole COVID-19 reality has created the necessity for us to look at a whole range of services. We are constantly in a process of trying to improve services for our residents,” Cook said, adding he didn’t want to get into a personnel issue.

“We looked at what we were providing in dentistry, and in our search to improve services during COVID, we came across some opportunities that we were going to exercise longer-range.”

Cook said the centre is planning to move to off-site services for dental care that would be “more up-to-date and more modernized in what we can offer.” He said the care centre is still going through negotiations to finalize that service.

Jain said she asked the George Derby Centre about denture work she had begun with several residents at the centre but couldn’t complete before the pandemic closed the clinic. She said she was told that work would not continue.

She said she was also worried about the extent of care that would be provided without an in-house dentist, saying inadequate dental care could incur serious issues for seniors, including diminished nutrition from decreased eating due to teeth pain.

“Oftentimes the effects of those things in the elderly are confused with symptoms of dementia or cognitive decline,” she said, noting that could make it challenging for in-house care staff to identify dental issues in time.

Seniors also risk aspiration pneumonia – breathing fluids or food particles into the lungs – if the teeth aren’t cleaned properly and regularly.

“The consequences are pretty dire for the elderly because they’re reclined most of the time,” she said.

“So if it’s not being monitored by the people who know how to do it and have the facility to do it like us, then it's a pretty dramatic downhill slope in terms of decay and tooth loss and broken teeth and infections.”

Jain noted part of the issue is funding woes at the George Derby Centre, particularly as funding from Veterans Canada declined with the drop in veterans living at the centre. In 2017, the NOW reported that Ricky Kwan, the George Derby Care Society’s executive director, had called for a better funding model from Fraser Health.

But the health authority found, in an audit, that the centre was adequately funded but had failed to prepare for a shift in funding sources away from Veterans Canada.

Cook, however, said the George Derby Care Society has gone to great efforts in the last few years to improve its financial situation. While 2019 tax documents indicate the society had $40 million in liabilities, Cook said that was largely because of the construction of Derby Manor.

This year, those liabilities were shifted to the newly created Derby Manor Housing Society, and the George Derby Care Society is even looking at a potential surplus this year.

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