The Iowa Smiles Project: Helping Iowa Refugees Access Oral Health Care
Did you know that Iowa has a long history of welcoming refugees from around the world? Inviting refugees into our communities can grow cultural diversity, support the economy and help with Iowa’s growing workforce needs while also providing new opportunities for individuals and families who have been forced to flee their home country due to war, violence, conflict or persecution. But, starting life over in a new country also comes with many challenges, such as accessing and navigating health care.
In the U.S., many of us take our annual trips to the dentist for granted, while in some countries, oral health issues are often left untreated for a variety of reasons. As part of the resettlement process, all refugees are initially screened for health conditions to be provided immediate care. In 2018, dental problems were the most often reported health concern.
In 2021 and 2022, Iowa welcomed a large population of nearly 1,000 refugees from Afghanistan. In working with local refugee resettlement agencies, Delta Dental of Iowa Foundation learned more about the urgent oral health needs of newly arriving refugees, the barriers to dental care and how we could support efforts to improve access to care.
The Iowa Smiles Project
We connected and partnered with other local non-profit organizations to develop and pilot solutions that would help address refugees’ oral healthcare needs. Initial organizations that partnered with us to launch the Iowa Smiles Project were Broadlawns Medical Center, Dental Connections and Primary Health Care (PHC). Today, care coordination of the program is primarily managed by Dental Connections.
Since its initial launch in 2022, the Iowa Smiles Project has helped more than 520 refugees from a variety of countries receive dental treatments. In addition to providing treatment, refugees also receive education to increase awareness of and improve oral health habits.
Barriers to Dental Care
After starting care coordination efforts with the newly arriving refugees from Afghanistan, teams quickly learned that there were some challenges to providing dental care to all refugee populations. Issues like reliable transportation or needing childcare were typical. Another common challenge was the ability to pay for services or access dental insurance.
There were some less common challenges, however, that were unique to the various refugee populations, including:
- Limited English speaking skills
- Variations in diet
- Religious observations
- Cultural practices
- Limited to no oral health knowledge
Sharing lessons learned through the Iowa Smiles Project, The Iowa Refugee Resettlement & Access to Oral Health Care Report was created with the intent to raise awareness of refugees and share successes, challenges, and opportunities for dental practices across Iowa to provide culturally competent dental care to the newest Iowans. We invite you to learn more.
Plans for the Future
We are proud to support the Iowa Smiles Project to raise awareness of the importance of access to oral health care for refugees. We recognize that while this is an important step to improving and increasing access for Iowa refugees, there are still significant challenges to care that continue to exist. As part of this effort, we believe that continued patient education will be an important step in helping refugees who are new to accessing dental services to begin to understand the importance of good oral health habits. We will continue to work with our partners to share important oral health information and share healthy smiles across Iowa.