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Making oral health services more accessible

The School of Dentistry hopes to continue to grow oral health access across Utah.

This piece originally appeared on the Good Notes blog

In the ten years since its founding, the University of Utah School of Dentistry (UUSOD) has built one of the most innovative community-based oral health care systems in the nation. We did not do it alone. “If you build it, they will come,” is often used to describe how to attract patrons. We did the exact opposite.

Our mission is to care for Utah’s under-resourced individuals with compassion and equality while providing exceptional clinical experiences for our students. We looked to partner organizations to find unmet oral health needs and better understand the barriers people face in accessing oral health care.

Early on, we struggled to attract pediatric patients to the dental school’s clinic in Research Park. You might say we built it, but they did not come. So, one of our first partnerships began with the holistic vision of pediatricians at University of Utah Health’s South Main Clinic. That vision is about reducing barriers to care and integrating oral health care as part of a patient’s overall health plan. The opportunity to reduce patient barriers and create an innovative care model was a home run.

We are grateful for early visionaries who identified barriers to oral health access, which led us to expand to five more clinics in only three years. Why so many clinics in such a short amount of time? The answer is threefold: community needs, timing, and COVID-19.

Community health begins with community needs

Each clinic was established with a particular community in mind. At our Liberty Clinic, we partner with the Salt Lake Education Foundation to embed a pediatric dental clinic inside Liberty Elementary School. There, students from the Salt Lake City School District receive in-school screenings, oral health education, and follow-up care. The partnership has allowed children to receive much-needed oral health care without the burden to parents of taking time off work or dealing with transportation issues.

In St. George, Utah, we share a clinic on the Utah Tech University campus, where its dental hygiene program serves a high-need adult Medicaid community. As the principal provider for adult dental Medicaid benefits, it was essential for us to go to Southern Utah. Partnering with Utah Tech allows a truly interprofessional experience with hygiene students and dental students working side by side to serve patients.

Right place, right time applies in clinical expansion

Rachel Hess at the Edna Benning Medical Society

With five clinics in Salt Lake, including two resident clinics, and the St. George clinic, we thought we could just take a deep breath and coast for a while. But just as we took that deep breath, we learned the State of Utah was shutting down its community dental clinics in Rose Park and Ogden, both high-need oral health access areas.

Our mission called us once again. We could not expect the people from those communities to roll into our existing clinics. We knew we had to go to them. Luckily, the state also recognized the two locations as a perfect fit for us. We acquired the Rose Park and Ogden dental clinics right as the COVID-19 pandemic started. The acquisition came with a grant-funded Mobile Dental Clinic designed to travel throughout Utah helping rural and under-resourced communities by partnering with local health departments.

COVID-19, an unlikely accelerant

South Main Dental Clinic

Rapid clinical expansion came with challenges—and solutions came most unexpectedly. Our steadfast dean, Wyatt Hume, DDS, PhD, said, “Never let a pandemic go to waste.” He was right.

The pandemic forced us to slow down. We focused on communication and creating ways to calibrate across our growing statewide network, operating safely throughout the pandemic. While other dental institutions and clinics struggled, we expanded, refocused, and thrived thanks to the support and guidance of U of U Health leadership, robust COVID-19 testing, and a dedicated team. Through this approach, we now serve more communities, work with more organizations, and are more financially stable than ever before.

Helping people takes more than a movie slogan

“If you build it, they will come,” may work in the movies, but when your mission is to reach people in underrepresented, under-resourced, vulnerable, or rural communities it simply does not work. Looking ahead, we hope to continue to grow oral health access across Utah. We also hope to continue integrating oral health into primary care and improve overall health outcomes for everyone. With eight brick and mortar clinics and one mobile dental clinic, our future is as bright as the gold crowns we make for our patients.