Elkford dentist Dr. Alastair Nicoll is soon to receive the CDA Medal of Honour. He is pictured in his home in Fernie. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press

Elkford dentist honoured for extraordinary achievements

Dr. Alastair Nicoll will receive a Medal of Honour from the Canadian Dental Association this month

An Elkford dentist has been honoured for his dedication to his patients and profession, receiving the highest possible award conferred by the Canadian Dental Association (CDA).

In November 1989, Dr. Alastair Nicoll and his wife moved to the Elk Valley. Thirty years later, Nicoll is a well-known face in Elkford; not only for his work as a dentist, but also for his achievements.

Nicoll is the most recent recipient of the CDA Medal of Honour, given to a dentist in recognition of a lifetime of outstanding service and professional achievement to the benefit of the dental profession, the dental community and society at large, and to which can be attributed significant change.

This is not an annual award; the CDA only awards it when they deem appropriate.

Nicoll has also received an Honorary Award from the BC Dental Association.

Nicoll started practicing in Elkford after a mutual friend and colleague, a dentist in Fernie at the time, opened a practice in Elkford. At the time, Nicoll was working in Yellowknife but was encouraged to help out in Elkford to cope with the increase in demand.

“This was an opportunity just to walk in and get started,” he said.

After several years, the couple realized that they loved the Valley and decided to stay long term. By this time they had bought a home and decided to buy the practice as well.

They stayed put until eight years ago when they decided to move to what they knew would be their retirement home in Fernie.

Nicoll’s interest in health was piqued at a young age and he has always enjoyed working with people. He considers himself a ‘gadget freak’ and likes roles where he is immediately hands-on.

Before dentistry, Nicoll studied medicine but quickly realized that dentistry better suited his temperament.

Born in Scotland, Nicoll studied in England and spent a year and a half working in Bristol. However, he longed to work outside the UK and after applying in Yellowknife, was catapulted into a job that he found immediately gratifying.

There, he was immersed in a world that combined typical Canadian private practice dentistry, as well as fly-in, fly-out dentistry in extremely remote communities, the majority of which were indigenous. Nicoll and a team of dentists would work with patients for a week, sometimes in an empty school classroom, in a community of only 50.

Without a doubt, the most rewarding part about Nicoll’s job over the years has been helping people.

“We see a lot of folks who really have significant problems,” he said. “And being able to facilitate a return to a healthier mouth, is a big one.”

Nicoll recalled one the most rewarding moments in his career. He was treating a young boy with near-perfect teeth – no decay and very healthy gums. The boy’s father was next to him and explained to Nicoll that when he was his son’s age, he had severe issues with his teeth. Dental caries, or tooth decay, is often transmissible or passed down from the previous generation.

“To be able to break that cycle and go from a family where mom and dad had caries, the kid has caries, and then seeing that child’s child being completely healthy; that was a really eureka moment,” said Nicoll.

For years, Nicoll has been involved in dentistry groups, which help to regulate and support dentistry practices. In the early 2000s, he became the Kootenay representative on the Provincial Dental Association’s board of directors. From there, his involvement in the industry only continued to grow.

In 2008, Nicoll was elected president of the British Columbia Dental Association. In 2015, he was elected president of the CDA.

Nicoll has been sent overseas four times to represent Canada in the international dentistry scene, visiting India, Thailand, Poland and Spain.

The biggest project of his career came shortly after this and involved assembling a demographically diverse group of 25 individuals, 22 dentists and three staff members to examine the future of dentistry.

They asked the question: what will society look like in 15 years, what will society expect from dentistry and what must dentistry, as a collective profession, do in order to best meet the needs and expectations of society? Over 18 months, the group wrote papers based on interviews with hundreds of leaders from around the world, including health professionals, scientists and politicians.

“At the end of that we came together with a series of recommendations that were presented to the national leadership, as well as the provincial leadership of dentistry,” said Nicoll.

“That’s going to form the backbone of strategy moving forward so that dentistry continues to evolve in step with what society needs.”

This study, completed in April 2018, propelled Nicoll into the spotlight and he has since received several awards, including the CDA Medal of Honour.

The official presentation will happen in Ottawa this month.

“The list of people who have previously received it is quite remarkable, so I’m very very honoured to be amongst them,” said Nicoll.

“We don’t do this stuff because we expect any return, we do this stuff because we like our profession. We have a huge commitment to trying to better the health of people living in Canada.”

With his 66th birthday looming, Nicoll recognizes that it’s time to find some help in Elkford. As the only dentist in the community, Nicoll said his practice is actively looking to bring someone on.

Despite his age, Nicoll isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

He is also a member of the medical staff at the Elk Valley Hospital in Fernie and has been since Sparwood closed its operating room in the early 1990s. He will continue to work with this group to help meet the needs of people in the Elk Valley and Cranbrook as well.

Nicoll explained that dentistry, as crucial of a form of healthcare, is often neglected because it exists in a league of its own. This is partially due to how government currently funds it.

In Canada, he explained, only about six per cent of dental care is paid for by any level of government. This includes funding for people with disabilities, low income families and, on the national level, indigenous peoples.

The United States, which Canadians typically consider a private healthcare system, funds per capita almost twice this. European countries far exceed this.

Nichol said only about 60 per cent of healthcare costs in Canada are met by the government.

“Dentistry tends to fall into that missing 40 per cent… dentistry is often forgotten but is an essential part of healthcare,” he said.

“Being involved has given me the opportunity to work on various projects to try and improve that picture. And that’s the motivation.”

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