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Why the University of Utah’s dental school aims to serve the underserved

Caring for the underserved fosters empathy and a commitment to providing the best treatment for all patients.

Dental students Dan Atkinson and Christian Brown numb Tyler Morris for a wisdom tooth extraction at the University of Utah School of Dentistry’s dental clinic at the Liberty Community Learning Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Through the University of Utah School of Dentistry clinical network, tens of thousands of Utahns in need — even those living in underserved urban neighborhoods and those residing in rural or frontier communities — now have access to advanced dental care. It is surprising how quickly, in only eight years, the school has connected with those in need. We are now as much a service organization as we are one delivering excellent education and research.

The Noorda family gave $30 million to build the state’s public dental school with just one condition: that the school would care for people in need. Tye and Ray Noorda, for whom the Oral Health Sciences Building is named, devoutly believed in helping vulnerable people by providing needed access to oral health care. The family’s gift was matched with $30 million that visionary leaders within the U. had set aside, also with the goal of serving the people of Utah.

Our school is one of approximately 50 other accredited dental schools in the United States. Many serve the community in a more limited way: usually, people come to them. Instead, we go to the people. Other academic dental programs may have a clinic or two in remote locations. We have eight, stretching from Ogden to St. George. We have growing partnerships in both care delivery and education with Utah’s four dental hygiene programs at Dixie State, Weber State, Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College. We also now oversee a rural care delivery network, formerly managed by the Utah Department of Health.

But even with our wide geographic scope, the Utah Medical Education Council reports that 24 of Utah’s 29 counties are considered dental shortage areas. Two Utah counties have no dentists at all. So we have gaps to fill. We are asking the State Legislature, now in session, for a continuing appropriation so that we can recruit excellent students from rural Utah, then help them to return there when they graduate to establish dental practices.

Along with educating oral health professionals serving Utahns, the UUSOD conducts transformative research. Notably, we have successfully combined highly relevant research with advanced oral health services and clinical experience for students. Patients in substance abuse programs who received comprehensive dental care from our students experienced marked improvements in quality of life: they were three times more likely to be employed, three times less likely to be homeless, and they stayed in treatment programs twice as long when we restored their oral health, function, and appearance.

Those changes saved the state a lot of expense as people regained hope, homes and employment. With our medical colleagues, we are extending those studies — and that care — for patients living with serious chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, complex genetic conditions and psychiatric disorders.

The University of Utah School of Dentistry takes great pride in our mission of service. We will build on it, strengthen it to fulfill the community need, and further the experience and education it provides our students. Caring for the underserved fosters empathy and a commitment to providing the best treatment for all patients. This is the ultimate goal of education and service at the School of Dentistry. We are grateful for support from the people of the great state of Utah.

Wyatt R. Hume, D.D.S., Ph.D., is dean of the University of Utah School of Dentistry.