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U of U School of Dentistry offers free services to refugees

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Clients of the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City will be receiving dental care through the University of Utah School of Dentistry.
During their first visit new refugee patients take x-rays and receive an individualized treatment plan. Photo: Pamela Silberman/IRC

Through a new partnership with the University of Utah (U of U) School of Dentistry, 3rd and 4th-year dental students will begin providing dental services to refugees served by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City. In May, the U of U School of Dentistry began accepting refugee patients who were referred by the IRC’s health team, with the current program objective to serve four new patients each month who need dental care.  

The ultimate goal of the program, Pamela Silberman, health program manager at the IRC in Salt Lake City, explains is that “all [adults] will have access to dental care. The plan is to have it be an ongoing comprehensive dental care access for our clients since they don’t have that from Medicaid.”

Dental care is difficult for newly resettled refugees to consistently access. Some programs, like Share-A-Smile, offer one-time treatment for refugees in need of dental care. Additionally, Medicaid, one of the only opportunities given to most refugees to access ongoing health services prior to finding employment, only covers one emergency tooth extraction per year: “Many of our clients need a lot of work because they’ve never had dental care and have some serious issues, [the dental clinics through the School of Dentistry] will cover a lot of the dental work that clients need,” Pamela continues.  

Before their first visit to the School of Dentistry’s free clinic, dental students hold an orientation with newly arrived refugee patients to help them understand what to expect when they visit the dentist. Likewise, a member of the IRC health team visits the dental students before they begin working with refugee clients to teach them about working with refugees who will likely have linguistic and cultural barriers to overcome in addition to previous trauma. Additionally, IRC staff train community partners, like the U of U School of Dentistry, to provide trauma-informed care.

When the initial appointment is scheduled, IRC health team members schedule time to provide an orientation to new public transit routes for the individual to ensure they understand how to access the clinic for future appointments. As with most of the work at the IRC in Salt Lake City, team members focus on self-sufficiency practices so refugees can access community services on their own: “We are really trying to make sure the clients will be able to continue their treatment independently. That’s why we chose [a centrally located clinic that] is easier for clients to get to. It’s more familiar to them.”

The University of Utah provides interpreters during the dental visits to ease the language barrier and ensure understanding. Photo: Pamela Silberman/IRC

During their first visit to the dentist, each individual receives a focused treatment plan to ensure their specific needs are met, especially considering their unique treatment history. After their first appointment, refugee adults work to schedule follow-up appointments on their own and work with an IRC health team member to complete their necessary dental work. On the path to self-sufficiency and positive integration in our community, health and wellness are critical to ensure newly arrived refugees are able to accomplish the basics and continue toward success.

We are grateful for community partners like the University of Utah School of Dentistry for giving refugees in our community the opportunity to access dental care.

Learn how you can support refugees in Salt Lake City by visiting Rescue.org/SupportSLC. If you are interested in helping refugee adults access specific health services, email us at SaltLakeCity [at] rescue.org for more information.