Although Health Canada has been making oral health programs available to Inuit and First Nations, the federal department has failed to track how much improvement has been made in the overall oral health of those populations, according to an Auditor General’s report released last week.

In its defence, Health Canada stated that it has recently formulated an action plan and is working with Inuit and First Nations to complete a strategy, something the Auditor General said Health Canada lacked during the audit period, which covered September 2013 to December 2016.

Discussions are underway with Inuit and First Nations groups as Health Canada expects to adopt a strategy called the Oral Health Integrated Approach by March, said Rebecca Purdy, media relations adviser for Health Canada.

“We will continue to work closely with our Indigenous partners to support better access to effective, sustainable and culturally-appropriate health services and programs for Indigenous peoples,” said Purdy. “We are also looking at opportunities to increase control of First Nations and Inuit partners on this health benefit program.”

Health Canada allocates in excess of $200 million for Inuit and First Nations’ oral health services across the country each year, with more than 300,000 people within those populations receiving oral health coverage through Health Canada last year.

Although the 2017 federal budget brought at $45-million expansion to the Children’s Oral Health Initiative over five years, Health Canada was unable to explain why enrolment and delivery of some services had declined for the Children’s Oral Health Initiative in previous years.

“The department did not know how much of a difference it was making to Inuit and First Nations people’s oral health,” the Auditor General’s report stated. “These findings matter because Inuit and First Nations people have more unmet oral health needs than the rest of Canadians do.”

Statistically, more than 90 percent of Inuit and First Nations adolescents have one or more teeth affected by cavities, compared with 58 percent of non-Indigenous adolescents, according to the Auditor General’s report.

The Auditor General recommended that Health Canada improve its data analysis and have a “concrete plan” to determine the impact its efforts are having on Inuit and First Nations people.

Health Canada agreed with the report’s recommendations and committed to complete more oral health surveys, among other measures.

“We are committed to evidence-based decision-making, supported by the most up-to-date and reliable data available, in order to improve the well-being of all Indigenous peoples,” Purdy said.

The Northwest Territories and Nunavut Dental Association did not return calls for comment prior to press deadline.

Fact file:

Inuit and First Nations people have dental disease at a rate nearly twice that of other Canadians. According to oral health surveys, this is attributed to:

  • fewer regular dental visits
  • less access to affordable and nutritious food
  • higher rates of smoking
  • geographic barriers
  • education level
Source: Auditor General of Canada

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