Healthy Living in the North

Oral health is not an out of body experience

Spirit the Cariboo at a fluoride varnish clinic with an NH staff member.One of the things that always strikes me as odd is that the mouth is often considered a separate body part when we’re discussing health issues. Did you know an unhealthy mouth can affect your appearance, social acceptance, and ability to eat and sleep? An infection in the mouth comes from a bacterial infection; these bacteria have the potential to travel through the bloodstream and affect other organs. Many people don’t realize that oral infections can impact chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, arthritis, and even birth rates.

Your mouth is an important part of your body! And we all need to treat it as such in order to be and stay as healthy as possible.

Empowering healthy dental behaviours

I’m a dental regional program lead – I teach and provide resources and tools to empower public health staff to support our northern population around adopting healthy dental behaviours. Dental public health staff work towards helping people achieve the skills they need to start making small changes – commonly called brief action planning. We want them to start today to make a small change.

How small changes can make a big difference

If someone decides today to use fluoride toothpaste daily (or better yet, twice daily), when previously they did not, the science tells us that their long range dental decay rate will reduce.

If today, a teenager starts chewing a sugar-free piece of gum after a snack, the length of time of the acidic attack on their teeth will diminish, and they will have less decay over their lifetime.

If someone makes a small change every day, the dental preventive effect is maximized and continues to increase.

I dream of a day when all dental treatment needs are covered by a universal dental plan; however, at this time, I am happy to focus my attention on what I can practically influence.

The cost of prevention: a positive return on investment

My perspective is that the cost of prevention is cheaper than the cost of chronic disease treatment in hospital. I once had a client who had diabetes and a mouth full of decayed teeth, coupled with no funding to fully treat the oral health issue. Not being able to eat impacted this person’s diabetes, and uncontrolled diabetes affected their emotional stability, resulting in a long hospital stay. Chronic and untreated oral infections take a toll on the body and in this case, the finances of the health care system.

Advocating for change

I continue to advocate for the best avenues to help clients access dental care, but every day I encourage my staff to implement the practical applications of dental prevention. Some of these include:

  • Using fluoride toothpaste twice a day.
  • Reducing frequent sipping on sweetened beverages.
  • Practicing empathy and respect so patients feel comfortable.

It takes many caring individuals across a broad spectrum of disciplines to implement change. I continue to believe change for the better is always possible… even if it’s only one tooth brushing session at a time.

Shirley Gray-Kealey

About Shirley Gray-Kealey

Shirley is the Team Lead for Dental Programs at Northern Health. She moved to Terrace for a two year position as a Dental Hygienist and has stayed for 27 years! She feels it's a privilege to live and work in the North. She loved teaching children and has been mistaken for the tooth fairy! She is not magic like the tooth fairy, but she is proud to lead a real team of preventive dental specialists in the North who work hard to ensure children keep their teeth healthy for a lifetime.

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Imagine a cavity-free world

Spirit the Cariboo holding a large toothbrush, standing against a mural of handprints.The Alliance for a Cavity-Free Future tells me to embrace the dream of a cavity-free world. It’s hard to capture what the burden of dental decay is, but estimates indicate that 35% of the population has cavities, which means 3.9 billion people are affected.

The World Dental Federation states that poor oral health affects our ability to speak, smile, smell, taste, touch, chew, swallow, and convey a range of emotions through facial expressions with confidence and without pain or discomfort. Around the globe, 60-90% of school-aged children and nearly 100% of adults have experienced tooth decay. In fact, dental caries (or tooth decay) are the most common, yet preventable, chronic disease — so what’s the problem and what can we change to make a difference moving forward?

The levels of preventive dentistry

I’ve been working in various levels of preventive dentistry since I was sixteen. Every action I did as a chair-side dental assistant was to help the dentist help people to keep their teeth for their lifetime. My “after school job” turned into my career and I first trained to become a certified dental assistant and then a few years later, a registered dental hygienist. My goal was to work one-on-one with people to  support and teach them how to stop cavities in their mouths.

Next, I was lucky enough to move from the private-practice dental world to work in public health at Northern Health. We see at-risk clients and support them as individuals to adopt prevention strategies.

We also target groups and professionals who could share preventive messaging in their work. My career has given me room to grow — from serving the individual client, to serving a population.

I’ve recently grown into a position that supervises dental staff in our region. I continue to encourage dental staff to embrace the dream of preventing cavities in our patients. We often see poverty as an underlying driver of decay, so we look for ways to support and serve them; we advocate for policy changes that support our patients.

Making a difference

Over the years, we’ve made a difference in people’s lives — the staff can tell you rewarding stories of gratitude from the families we serve. However, dental decay is such a big problem that it makes our efforts seem small.

When I discovered that there’s a worldwide body of people championing a cavity-free world, I was very excited! The Alliance for a Cavity-Free Future works together to advocate for good dental prevention practices. They could reach beyond the local dental office and public health sphere and shift dental outcomes in our culture. As Steve Jobs said, “Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, usually do.”

The Alliance for a Cavity-Free Future

Here’s some history of this world-changing group: In February 2016, the Alliance for a Cavity-Free Future put on the World Caries Prevention Symposium in Dubai. The event brought together experts from key disciplines, including nutrition, education, behaviour change, cariologists (how-to stop cavity experts), public health, clinical practice, and integrated management of cavities.

These experts came from across the globe to debate and strategize the practical steps to move the world toward a cavity-free state. Researchers report that more and more people around the world are getting cavities.

Some of the group’s goals to stop decay were:

  • Educate the whole medical team to champion dental prevention.
  • Support the most effective behaviour change models to be used in dentistry, like Brief Action Planning (a short discussion to help people to make a new health goal).
  • Experts on cavities think the best way to stop decay is to wait longer between meals, so our mouths have time to rest.
  • The same experts also think reducing the amount of sugar we eat to only 10% of our daily calories would help reduce cavities.

For more information

Shirley Gray-Kealey

About Shirley Gray-Kealey

Shirley is the Team Lead for Dental Programs at Northern Health. She moved to Terrace for a two year position as a Dental Hygienist and has stayed for 27 years! She feels it's a privilege to live and work in the North. She loved teaching children and has been mistaken for the tooth fairy! She is not magic like the tooth fairy, but she is proud to lead a real team of preventive dental specialists in the North who work hard to ensure children keep their teeth healthy for a lifetime.

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It’s Pharmacy Awareness Month: Learn more about clinical pharmacists in the hospital

Jessie McIntosh working at a desk.

Jessie McIntosh in action.

March is Pharmacy Awareness Month, and as pharmacy residents at Northern Health, I and my colleague Jessica Manning wanted to let you know a little about the job that makes us excited to come to work each day.

What do we do?

Clinical pharmacists are drug experts involved in various areas of medication management, such as:

  1. Checking to make sure each drug is necessary, effective, and safe for each patient.
  • We check to make sure patients are getting the right drug at the right dose at the right time.
  • Patient age, weight, kidney and liver function, lab tests, drug interactions, allergies, and cost are just some of the things we look at to make sure a drug is right for a patient.
  1. Working with the healthcare team to make each patient’s drug regimen the best it can be:
  • Recommending medication changes to the prescriber.
  • Monitoring various medications and following up with medication changes.
  • Making sure patients are getting all the medications they usually take at home and need in the hospital.
  • Providing the team with detailed up-to-date drug information.
  1. Working with patients to make sure patients are engaged in managing their health by:
  • Discussing their preferences to make sure each patient’s health goals are being met.
  • Counselling patients on how to take their medications, how to know if medications are working for them, and how to manage side effects.
  • Sometimes following up with patients who’ve been discharged from hospital, especially if there’s a complex medication plan (for example, for blood thinners or antibiotics, to name a few).

A pin that says I heart pharmacy.What does that mean for our patients?

Studies show that clinical pharmacists help:

  1. Reduce the time patients spend in hospital
  2. Improve patient health and chronic disease management
  3. Improve patient safety
  4. Reduce healthcare costs

My hospital pharmacist told me they’re a resident – what does that mean?

  • A hospital pharmacy residency is a year-long program that some pharmacists choose to do after they’ve graduated from university.
  • A resident is not required to be a hospital pharmacist, but it helps to build on clinical skills in a practical learning environment.
  • Residents have many rotations on different wards and in different areas of practice throughout the year (e.g., surgery, emergency, pediatrics, intensive care, research).
  • The program focuses on direct patient care, pharmacy operations, project management and personal aspects of pharmacy.
  • The goal of the residency program is to better prepare pharmacists for challenging and innovative pharmacy practice in the hospital setting. After finishing the program, pharmacists become competent and independent clinical practitioners of pharmaceutical care in diverse patient populations.
  • Pharmacy residents develop clinical, interprofessional, and leadership skills under the guidance of experienced preceptors.
  • Northern Health’s pharmacy residency program is fully accredited, and graduates of the program receive their ACPR designation (Accredited Canadian Pharmacy Residency).

Happy Pharmacy Awareness Month!

Jessie McIntosh

About Jessie McIntosh

Jessie is a registered pharmacist, currently three quarters of the way through a pharmacy residency with Northern Health. She grew up in Vanderhoof, moving to Kelowna to complete her prerequisites at UBCO and then graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy from UBC in Vancouver in 2018. Jessie is thrilled to be back in the North and will continue to work for Northern Health, hopefully in a rural setting, after completing her residency. In her free time Jessie likes skiing, hiking, cooking, ceramics, and being in the great outdoors with friends.

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Your flu shot: be strong like Tom

Thomas showing his muscles.
Be strong like Thomas: get your flu shot.

Did you know, this year’s flu shot is working better than past years? Official estimates have the flu shot hovering around 70% effectiveness, far better than recent years.

So, what’s your hesitation? Not enough time? Hate getting a needle? Not sure where to get one? If you’ve used any of these an excuse to avoid the flu shot, I’d like to introduce you to Thomas.

Thomas is 7, he has a dog named Kodiak, he does judo, and he wants to ­be an electrician when he gets a little older.

Besides being a pretty cool kid, Thomas knows the flu shot is the best way to protect himself from the flu. What he didn’t know, but he learned this year, is that it also helps protect everybody else! Kids like him, babies, the elderly, and those with vulnerable immune systems are all impacted by him getting the shot!

Thomas and a local news crew.
“Just my arm was a little bit sore but that was ok because I got to be on the news.”

Here’s what he had to say about the experience:

“I was a little nervous because I was afraid it would hurt a lot. But it didn’t hurt until after, and just my arm was a little bit sore but that was okay because I got to be on the news.”

Thomas is one tough kid!

Looking to be like Tom and get the shot? Find a flu clinic in no time on the Immunize BC website.

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Smoking or chewing tobacco: have you had the talk?

Whether you use tobacco or not, you probably don’t want your kids to start smoking or chewing tobacco. Let your kids know how you feel about tobacco and make an emotional appeal to help them avoid becoming addicted.

If young people can make it to their nineteenth birthday without becoming tobacco users, then chances are they will never be one. However, youth can face pressure to use tobacco from a variety of sources as they grow into adulthood.

We all know that peer pressure is a significant source of that pressure, but what about other sources?  

Parents and other role models can counter these influences. Don’t assume that kids have the skills to resist peer pressure. You can help kids develop refusal skills to avoid tobacco and the addiction that can develop after one or two cigarettes. 

January 20-26 is National Non-Smoking Week. Let’s work together to influence our youth to live a healthy life.

For more information, visit:


In this story, as in most public health messages, “tobacco use” refers to the use of commercial tobacco products like cigarettes and chewing tobacco as opposed to traditional uses of tobacco. Northern Health supports the cultural and ceremonial uses of tobacco and recognizes that the benefits of traditional uses can outweigh the potential harms.

Nancy Viney

About Nancy Viney

Nancy is a registered nurse working in Northern Health’s population health team. She often imagines a day when no one in northern British Columbia suffers from the harmful effects of tobacco. In her time off, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, especially her two little grandchildren! Nancy also enjoys quilting, knitting, crocheting and many other home spun crafts.

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Remembering the importance of immunizations

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Northern Health’s Healthier You – Summer 2018 edition on Healthy Schools. Read the full issue here.)

A dad holding his smiling daughter.

Did you know that in this past century, in Canada, more lives have been saved due to immunizations than any other public health initiative? Even with this amazing fact, many people remain under- or un-immunized, and a recent B.C. incident highlights the risks posed by vaccine preventable diseases (VPD). The Okanagan experienced a meningitis outbreak last fall, with several people becoming ill. Sadly, there was one case where meningococcal disease contributed to death.

Vaccines work

Immunizations, also known as vaccinations, help to protect you from getting a VPD. When you get vaccinated, you also help to protect others by interfering with a germ’s ability to spread (this effect is called herd or community immunity). It’s much safer to get vaccinated than to catch an infectious disease.

Consider what happens in the absence of vaccinations. Unvaccinated children contract vaccine preventable illnesses and diseases at higher rates than vaccinated children. Varicella (chicken pox) rates can be up to nine times higher, measles up to 35 times higher, and pertussis (whooping cough) up to between six and 28 times higher! Further, VPDs are more severe in infants and younger children. Delayed immunizations also increase the duration that a child is vulnerable to VPDs.

Northern Health is working to improve vaccination rates

Northern Health manages, allocates, and distributes $6 million dollars’ worth of publicly funded vaccine each year within the northern region, ensuring that vaccines are available to those who need them, when they need them. Northern Health is also conducting a quality improvement study to determine if an automated telephone message is a feasible and useful reminder for parents to bring their children in for vaccinations.

In other efforts, Northern Health is embarking on a childhood immunization strategy to ensure that all two-year-olds are fully caught up. This is accomplished by closely monitoring vaccination rates, increasing the promotion of immunizations, and improving access to vaccination services. Northern Health intends to increase the average immunization rate of 70%, to 75% next year, 85% by 2021, and 90% by 2023.

What you can do

It’s really simple: get vaccinated. Influenza season is here and most pharmacies and public health facilities offer flu shots. Look for locations via ImmunizeBC’s Flu Clinic locator website.

Other vaccines you might need as an adult depend not only on your age, lifestyle, overall health, pregnancy status, and travel plans, but also on those you have close contact with (think of infants under six months of age, the elderly, as well as people with depressed immune systems). What vaccines you had as a child is also a consideration. Talk with your health care provider about which vaccines you need. Finally, get your children vaccinated according to BC’s recommended vaccination schedule.

More information about immunizations

Please refer to the following excellent Canadian-based web resources:

Mike Gagel

About Mike Gagel

Hailing from Vancouver, Mike and his family moved to Prince George in the summer of 2013. Mike joined Northern Health in March 2017 and works as the Regional Manager for Communicable Disease. Mike has worked in healthcare for twenty years in various roles such as Oncology Nurse (BC Cancer), Clinical Research Nurse (UBC Dermatology), Regional Manager (Vancouver Coastal), and consultant Web Officer (PHSA). He also worked as a technology director with the BC School Trustees Association before joining Northern Health. Outside work, Mike is a volunteer with Scouts Canada, and as a board member with both the Prince George Public Library and the BC Library Trustees Association.

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January 20-26 is National Non-Smoking Week!

No smoking emojis

Did you know most tobacco users want to quit? Or that smoking tobacco is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death? Yikes! This week, let’s work on helping to prevent young people from starting to smoke or chew tobacco and helping the tobacco users in your life quit so we can protect everyone from the harms of second- and third-hand smoke.

There are free provincial resources to help people quit – they can quit for a day and work towards a long term quit plan! Interested? Here’s three quitting resources you should check out now.

Three resources to quit smoking today:

  • QuitNow: get free counselling and support by visiting QuitNow or calling 1 877-455-2233. They even text! Text QUITNOW to 654321.
  • Free quitting products through the BC Smoking Cessation Program: all British Columbians can access FREE Nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, or inhalers through the BC Smoking Cessation Program to help reduce cravings while trying to quit. Talk to your pharmacist. You may be eligible for help to buy smoking cessation medications such as Varenicline (Champix) or Bupropion (Zyban).
  • Make a plan and find a friend: if you smoke, plan to quit; if you don’t smoke, help a tobacco user quit! 

In this story, as in most public health messages, “tobacco use” refers to the use of commercial tobacco products like cigarettes and chewing tobacco as opposed to traditional uses of tobacco. Northern Health supports the cultural and ceremonial uses of tobacco and recognizes that the benefits of traditional uses can outweigh the potential harms.

Nancy Viney

About Nancy Viney

Nancy is a registered nurse working in Northern Health’s population health team. She often imagines a day when no one in northern British Columbia suffers from the harmful effects of tobacco. In her time off, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, especially her two little grandchildren! Nancy also enjoys quilting, knitting, crocheting and many other home spun crafts.

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Award of Merit for NH Stop Stigma campaign

Tamara Reichert accepting an Award of Excellence at the IABC Awards.

It’s the perfect day for a #ThrowbackThursday to when NH won an Award of Merit in issues management and crisis communication from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) for our “Stop Stigma. Save Lives.” campaign!

Tamara Reichert, communications advisor, pictured, accepted the award on NH’s behalf at the IABC World Conference in Montreal earlier this year. The campaign aimed at reducing stigma against people who use drugs, in response to the provincial public health emergency around overdose-related deaths in BC last year.

Stigma against people who use drugs results in discrimination, impacts health, and contributes to overdoses. By sharing the stories of the 12 people with firsthand or family experiences of drug use, our goal was to focus on building compassion, encouraging empathy, and creating awareness that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Kudos to everyone who worked on this project and the NH Anti-Stigma Opioid Response team! See our videos and learn more about the project on our website here: https://www.northernhealth.ca/health-topics/stigma

Jessica Quinn

About Jessica Quinn

Jessica Quinn is the regional manager of digital communications and public engagement for Northern Health, where she is actively involved in promoting the great work of NH staff to encourage healthy, well and active lifestyles. She manages NH's content channels, including social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc). When she's not working, Jessica stays active by exploring the beautiful outdoors around Prince George via kayak, hiking boots, or snowshoes, and she has recently completed her master's degree in professional communications from Royal Roads University, with a focus on the use of social media in health care. (NH Blog Admin)

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Five things you can do to help prevent the flu!

Prevent the flu by looking after your health! Getting outside helps me find wellness in the winter. Pictured: my friend and I skiing at Murray Ridge Ski Hill in Fort St. James.

As a communications advisor for the Northern Health, influenza (the flu) becomes a big part of my day-to-day work when the winter season begins. It’s my job to help get important flu messages out to the right people, on the right channels, at the right time.

In preparation for influenza season, every fall I work closely with my public health and primary care colleagues to make sure Northerners know where and when they can get their flu shot and what they can do to prevent getting the flu and spreading it. We also work together to share why it’s important to get your vaccination (hint: it has to do with protecting the vulnerable).

Here are five things you can do to help prevent the flu:   

  1. Getting your flu shot isn’t just about you – it’s about protecting those around you. Sure, getting a flu shot can be temporarily uncomfortable, but for those who are sick, immune compromised, or elderly, getting the flu isn’t just uncomfortable but potentially deadly! Getting your flu shot protects them and yourself.
  2. When visiting a Northern Health facility, make sure you’ve had your flu shot or wear a mask. I recently had a family member staying at UHNBC and I made sure to remind my family members to only visit if they had had their flu shot or wore a mask. Staff and physicians are asked to report their choice.
  3. Wash your hands! Having good hand hygiene during flu season is one of the best ways to prevent getting and spreading the flu. Get in the habit of washing your hands before eating, touching your face, or after touching common surfaces (hello elevator buttons!). Need a refresher on your technique? Check out this guide.
  4. Getting your flu shot can be easy and convenient. Did you know that in many communities you can get your flu shot at your local pharmacy? For me, this was a great option when I missed getting my flu shot at work. Many pharmacies are open after work hours (great for those of us who work regular office hours) and don’t require any appointments. You can find a flu shot provider at ImmunizeBC.ca.
  5. Stop the flu by staying healthy. This time of year can be busy both professionally and personally for many people. For me, I find it’s a time when I really need to pay attention to my physical and mental wellness so I don’t get run down. Doing activities I enjoy, incorporating wellness at work, and making sure I’m sleeping enough all help. 

So there it is! Five things I want you to remember when it comes to flu:

  1. Get your flu shot to protect yourself and those around you.
  2. Make sure you’ve had a flu shot or wear a mask when visiting hospitals.
  3. Wash your hands!
  4. Find a flu shot clinic that’s convenient for you.
  5. Stop the flu by looking after your health!
Haylee Seiter

About Haylee Seiter

Haylee is a communications advisor for Public and Population Health. She grew up in Prince George and is proud to call Northern BC home. During university she found her passion for health promotions by volunteering with the Canadian Cancer Society and became interested in marketing through the UNBC JDC West team. When she's not dreaming up communications strategies, she can be found cycling with the Wheelin Warriors or spending time with family and friends. (NH Blog Admin)

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Food Security, Part 3: A call to action

All British Columbians have the right to access a healthy diet in ways that are right for them. In two previous blog posts, I highlighted  household food insecurity and the Food Costing in BC report. With the knowledge that 17% of households in Northern BC are food insecure, what are our next steps?

It is important to mention that decreasing household food insecurity isn’t about decreasing the cost of food. This is because we also must ensure that our food system is healthy and sustainable. Part of a just food system is making sure growers and producers are paid a fair wage – which is reflected in the cost of food.

Community food security

There is a lot of wonderful food systems work happening in Northern communities that focuses on food growing, preparation, and eating. This focus on improving the food system works to increase community food security, which is the ability to access a healthy, safe, and culturally appropriate diet, while maintaining a sustainable, healthy, and just food system. Community food security programs can:

Household Food Insecurity: An income-based issue

However, while community food programs offer a lot of value, household food insecurity is an income-based issue that needs income-based solutions. The root cause of household food insecurity isn’t the price of food or distance to grocery stores. It’s also not lack of food skills or education; it’s that some households do not have enough income to purchase food. Community food programs do not address income deficits directly. According to local community advocate Stacey Tyers,

Food programs that focus on local and sustainable agriculture, (e.g. community gardens) are very important for the health and wellbeing of a community. However, without also addressing income, many community members still cannot afford to put food on the table.”

Changing the situation for those who struggle to meet their basic needs must begin with a focus on income. Exploring income based solutions is the most effective way to decrease household food insecurity:

Ultimately, no person should have to worry about getting enough food. BC would benefit from income based solutions that raise the income of fixed wage and low income earners, so that all British Columbians can have their basic needs met. Without addressing income, household food insecurity will remain a concern in our communities,” says Stacey.

Income based policy has been shown to work:

  • The risk of household food insecurity drops by 50% once low income adults reach the age of 65 and become eligible for seniors’ pension programs (a form of guaranteed income)
  • Newfoundland and Labrador invested in poverty reduction work, which saw a reduction in household food insecurity among social assistance recipients

Access to food is a human right – all Northerners should have their basic needs met. The health impacts of food insecurity go far beyond individual and household food patterns, or food and lifestyle “choices”. Household food insecurity is closely linked to income, and factors such as low income and unpredictable employment more deeply impact health than food choice itself.

Individuals, communities, and governments all have a role to play in making BC more food secure.

Wondering how you can get involved?

Check out the first two blogs of this series:

Laurel Burton

About Laurel Burton

Laurel works with Northern Health as a population health dietitian, with a focus on food security. She is a big proponent of taking a multi-dimensional approach to health and she is interested in the social determinants of health and how they affect overall well-being, both at the individual and population level. Laurel is experienced in working with groups across the lifecycle, within BC and internationally, to support evidence-informed nutrition practice for the aim of optimizing health. When she is not working, Laurel enjoys cooking, hiking, and travelling. She loves exploring the North!

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