Green Shield Canada’s historic $6.15-million gift to U of T’s Faculty of Dentistry set to transform dental public health in Canada

Nov 24, 2020

The One Smile research program will impact thousands by offering no-cost dental care to impoverished families in a groundbreaking five-year study.

An open door painted green beside a sign that reads: Green Shield Canada Clinic.
The Green Shield Canada Clinic is part of the One Smile research program. Photo by Jeff Comber

A historic $6.15-million gift made by Green Shield Canada (GSC) to the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry stands poised to transform dental public health research and policy development in Canada. The gift represents the largest single donation to dental public health research in Canadian history.

Donated through GSC’s Green Door Project, whose mission is to help Canadians secure access to health care, the gift will fund the establishment of a remarkable five-year research program that will offer no-cost oral health care to thousands of individuals and their families who cannot otherwise afford it.

“Since our founding in 1957, Green Shield Canada has operated as a social enterprise focused on improving access to effective, evidence-based health care,” says GSC president and CEO Zahid Salman. He adds, “Our collaboration with the University of Toronto on the Green Door Project is a continuation of this history. Together we will provide oral health care to under-serviced populations and aim to start a conversation across the country about how to permanently increase access to dentistry for the uninsured and under-insured in our communities.”

GSC is the fourth largest health and dental benefits provider in Canada.

No-cost dental clinic, five year study

The gift will fund the founding of a two-chair dental clinic that will be housed within the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry, located in the heart of Canada’s most densely populated urban centre. The One Smile research program will simultaneously conduct the largest dental public health research program in Canadian history while delivering care to potentially thousands of patients in the clinic, to be known as the Green Shield Canada Clinic in honour of its generous donors.

“I would like to thank Green Shield Canada for this incredibly generous and creative gift,” says Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto. “The Green Door Project and the
Green Shield Canada Clinic will benefit so many disadvantaged individuals and communities, and help to build a healthy and inclusive society. This wonderful gift will also significantly advance U of T’s mission of national and global leadership in health care and public health policy.”

“As an organization, we have always tried to follow evidence in our advocacy for improvements in health care, and in this case, the evidence pointed us squarely in the direction of oral health as one of the most significant gaps Canadians face in accessing the care they need to live their healthiest lives,” says David Willows, executive vice president of digital, innovation and brand experience for GSC.

Removing barriers to oral health

“Oral health and access to oral health care are significant public health issues, not just dentistry-related issues, and need to be treated as such,” says Faculty of Dentistry associate professor Carlos Quiñonez, who will lead the One Smile research program.

In fact, oral health care is an increasing concern for Canadians everywhere. Studies have shown the systemic effect that oral health can have on overall health, with poor oral health status intrinsically linked to complications of diabetes, heart disease and a host of other conditions. Yet, one in five Canadians do not have access to oral health care. Those from lower-income brackets are four times more likely to avoid seeing a dentist due to the cost, who are then far more likely to have worse oral health and dental treatment needs.

Canada’s oral health statistics were a major motivator for GSC’s impactful philanthropy.

“We carefully considered how we could best move the current system forward, both in terms of actually helping a portion of Canadians get access to the care they need, but also looking longer-term at addressing the systemic barriers that have led us to this place. That really sums up what the Green Door Project is here to do – working with community and academic partners like the University of Toronto to come up with smart, sustainable ways to move the needle forward on critical components of health,” Willows adds.

Quiñonez, who is also director of the graduate specialty program in dental public health at the Faculty of Dentistry, has assembled a multidisciplinary team of experts in health care delivery, health economics, dental public health, public policy, immunology, and periodontology. Individuals and their families admitted into the One Smile research program — an estimated 1,500-2,000 persons — will take part in a multi-layered study that will continuously assess their oral health, overall health, pain levels, as well as social factors such as life satisfaction, employability and more over the course of five years.

Toward new public health policies

The goal of the program is to establish a unique body of evidence that can be used to inform public health policies regarding oral health and access to care.

Acknowledging past work in the area of dental public health and access to care, Quiñonez adds that this will be the first research program that will frame access to health care in terms of a return on investment, be that through improving human capital, social economic gains or lifting the burden on existing health care structures. Those who cannot access oral health care often have to resort to hospital emergency room care, for instance, adding pressure to an already strained health care system.

“We know that oral health is an integral part of overall health,” says Daniel Haas, dean of the Faculty of Dentistry. “This unique multidisciplinary research program will create meaningful measures of the impact of oral health care on individuals, families, the healthcare system and society, which will allow us to extrapolate that impact to the regional, provincial and national public health discourse.”

Quiñonez adds, “Our goal is not to convince governments about expanding coverage for dental care in Canada, but to create the knowledge that is needed to help make policy decisions based on evidence and good research. What I primarily want to see is that we’ve been able to inform existing policy debates and, most ideally, to help people who desperately need access to dental care.”

The One Smile research program will also continue the vibrant history of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry as a leader in dental public health research. The program stands to attract top graduate student talent to tackle the wealth of studies that could be generated from the original program.

“On behalf of the Faculty of Dentistry, I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to our partners at Green Shield Canada for this generous donation. With this investment in the One Smile research program, the Faculty of Dentistry has before it a truly remarkable opportunity to further strengthen our vision to improve health by an advancing dentistry through inspired leadership, innovation, and excellence in education, research and practice,” says Haas.

The Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Toronto is Canada’s first and largest dental faculty, which sees over 90,000 patient visits in a typical year. The Faculty is a leader in research and offers comprehensive training in undergraduate and graduate programs.

By Erin Vollick