The stocky grey-haired prisoner walked stiffly out of Toronto’s Don Jail, bitter and unrepentant after his release. A small group of colleagues greeted him with cheers befitting a major political martyr. But while Ben Sweet considered himself a prisoner of conscience, the cause of his incarceration last month was hardly treasonous. Sweet found himself behind bars for nothing more heinous than manufacturing a set of partial dentures.
The 59-year-old denture therapist may well become the Morgentaler of molar mechanics. Sweet chose to serve a short prison term in lieu of a $1,000 fine to publicize the growing conflict between denture therapists, dentists and provincial governments. According to Ontario’s 1974 Denture Therapists Act, denture-makers can only deal directly with the public when they are supplying full dentures for patients who have had all their teeth removed by a dentist. If even one tooth remains, the law dictates
that the resulting partial denture must be fitted under the supervision of a dentist. About 50 denture therapists in Ontario are facing charges of installing partial dentures without supervision, and many of them, if convicted, plan to follow Sweet’s route to a jail cell as a protest.
Denture therapists, known as denturists in some provinces, allege that the supervision
rule is merely a ploy by dentists to keep the lucrative denture market for themselves and that dentists often refuse to supervise the procedure. “I send every patient to the dentist to examine his teeth and make sure his mouth is in good condition before I make the partial denture,” says Sweet, who is also president of the Denturists Association of Canada. “The only difference is that I don’t have a dentist standing on my back in order to be able to charge another 60 per cent on top of what I charge.”
It boils down to a question of price versus safety. Denture therapists charge about $300 for a set of full upper and lower dentures that would cost about $550 from a dentist. “When you
go to a dentist,” says Dr. Kenneth Pownall, registrar of the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario, “you are paying for training, experience and quality that you get from someone who has six years of university compared to someone with a two-year course from a community college. It appears to me that these people would like to be dentists but just don’t want to bother going to dentistry school.”
For years, the entire dental field was clamped tightly under the bite of dentists who farmed out mechanical work to dental technicians, a broad group of laboratory workers whose ranks included those who specialized in dentures. In 1958, British Columbia became the first province to allow denture therapists to provide full dentures without the dentist middleman; today only Prince Edward Island is without legislation that legitimizes denturists. Saskatchewan and Quebec, however, allow them to sell partial dentures without the supervision of dentists. As well, courses in denture therapy are now of-
fered at community colleges in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Nova Scotia. “A student spends more than 4,000 hours just to work in this one division of dentistry,” says George Connolly, a Vancouver denture therapist and secretaryregistrar of the Denturists Association of Canada. “A dentist takes about 500 hours to study the same thing in dental prosthetics. We’re well prepared to provide both full and partial dentures.
Right across the country we haven’t had one malpractice suit against any of our members.”
But even those who admit that denture therapists are qualified worry about the ambitions of the false-teeth fabricators. “The main thrust of the matter is how far they want to go,” maintains Jack Richardson, the registrar of the Governing Board of Dental Technicians which administers the lab employees working exclusively for dentists. “Last year they wanted to do full dentures. This year they want to do partíais. What will they want in 1982? I’m not saying that they aren’t qualified to make a partial denture. But they aren’t qualified to work on natural teeth.”
In the meantime, Ben Sweet is back in his clinic, churning out both full and partial dentures regardless of the law, a fact that at least pleases his patients, if not dentists. Says one of his clients, 64year old Mary Ölender: “I had my dentures done by a dentist about three years ago and I still can’t wear them. I came to Ben Sweet and he gave me a perfect fit. I paid $220 for a full upper and lower set that would have cost way over $600 from a dentist.” Ian Pearson
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