Student Volunteers Provide Oral Healthcare to Refugees

Dentistry Today


Staff and students at the University of Manchester Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health in the United Kingdom are teaming up to deliver dental care to refugees from countries such as Syria, Iran, and Sudan and other minority groups in the community.

“Two years ago I attended an event where the university’s Social Responsibility team spoke about working with people escaping conflict. It made me wonder how much research was being done into dental care provision for asylum seekers and refugees,” said Dr. Joanne Cunliffe, senior lecturer and endodontics consultant at the University Dental Hospital.

“Our dental students need patients to treat and the asylum seekers need treatment, so I wanted to bring those two groups together,” said Cunliffe.

Through regular clinics at the Rainbow Haven center in Gorton, Joanne and her team of student volunteers provide dental treatment to displaced and marginalized people. At Rainbow Haven, refugees and asylum seekers can also access services such as healthcare, family support, advice, employment training, and other important resources.

Every six to eight weeks, the students visit Rainbow Haven to provide oral hygiene instruction, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and advice. If refugees and asylum seekers opt to receive treatment, they can arrange to undergo procedures such as tooth extraction, fillings, and denture fittings.

“Many have endured terrible living conditions, meaning that they usually have a broad range of dental care needs,” Cunliffe said. “So our students can put their skills to good use.”

“It’s been so valuable to have students from the University of Manchester at our center carrying out free checkups and identifying any problems. Our service users really appreciated the service,” said Kate Percival, manager of Rainbow Haven.

After arriving in the United Kingdom, asylum seekers and refugees face numerous challenges in trying to access health services, the university said.

“Many have been turned away when attempting to register for treatment in the UK. This happens because healthcare providers are often unaware of their rights to free healthcare and dental care,” said Cunliffe.

In fact, asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to free primary and secondary care, including dental care, prescriptions for medicine, and eyesight tests. While waiting for their refugee status to be approved, many must also survive on a restricted budget, so the cost of public transport can prevent them from attending healthcare and dental appointments.

Cunliffe and the student volunteers are dedicated to helping other marginalized groups as well. They also recently collaborated with the LGBT Foundation to run a dental clinic for more than 20 LGBT patients in Manchester.

“First- and second-year students volunteered at this session. This group of patients typically have a different set of healthcare needs compared to some of the complex cases that present at the clinic for asylum seekers,” said Joanne.

“This was an excellent service. As a transgender person, accessing healthcare can be challenging. Having the service located in a safe space helped me overcome that barrier and access dental healthcare for the first time since coming out,” said one patient who received treatment.

The team then delivered a clinic specifically for LGBT refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom were escaping persecution in their home country because of their sexuality or gender reassignment. At that session, 20 more patients received free dental treatment and oral hygiene advice from student volunteers.

It isn’t just the patients who benefit from attending these dental clinics, the university added, noting that they also are unique opportunities for student volunteers to hone a number of key skills.

“Volunteering at the clinic for refugees has given me a real confidence boos and improved my communication skills,” said Natasha Whitcombe, a fourth-year dentistry student. “It’s an opportunity to give tailored health advice to a patient population that might not otherwise be able to access this type of service.”

“I’ve gained experience of treating a much wider range of patients and tackled challenges such as language barriers. We’re getting real-world clinical experience and helping the community at the same time,” said Lydia Power, another student volunteer.

The project was recognized as part of the university’s Making a Difference Awards in 2019, where it was commended in the outstanding public and community engagement category.

“Going forward, we’re going to continue to deliver the dental drop-ins at Rainbow Haven in Gorton so that we can provide this service to as many refugees as possible,” said Cunliffe.

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