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Brighter Smiles for Refugees

The dental chair can be anxiety-inducing even for those who’ve grown up around American medicine, says University of Utah dental student Yukiko Stephan. So imagine how vulnerable it must be for refugees, grappling with a new language and health care system, whose backgrounds are marred by trauma.

Stephan learned to put herself in refugees’ shoes while working at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). She also became acutely aware of their unmet oral health needs. “Some have never seen a dentist before,” she notes. “We would see lots of tooth decay and lower knowledge of oral hygiene. Many were experiencing pain.” A 2021 U-led study revealed alarming rates of gum disease and tooth decay among Utah’s refugees, with almost half needing urgent treatment. Yet the insurance available to new refugees often excludes dental coverage.

Unchecked dental problems can have a domino effect on physical health and quality of life, says Jeri Bullock, U School of Dentistry associate dean for clinical affairs. If mouth pain makes it hard to talk or you’re too self-conscious to smile, for example, “that can be a barrier to getting a job.” 

As an IRC employee, Stephan had already established ties with the School of Dentistry to arrange free health screenings. So when the IRC sought a partner to offer free dental care and oral hygiene education, the dental school was a natural fit. Eligible IRC clients can receive comprehensive oral health care thanks to the School of Dentistry’s Oral Health Assistance Program, funded by community donors whose generosity has allowed the number of IRC clients served to grow from 25 to more than 130.

Bullock says the collaboration aligns perfectly with the dental school’s mission to provide care to Utah communities in need. It’s a mission that resonates with Stephan so much that she changed careers. After graduating from the School of Dentistry, she looks forward to a long career of providing care to underserved populations.

Community Spotlight

Salt Lake County
As the state’s flagship university, the U is committed to improving the lives of all Utahns. These stories highlight how we’re making an impact in every county. 


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