University of Utah School of Dentistry clinic reopens to treat vulnerable populations

University of Utah clinic.
Back in service: University of Utah School of Dentistry student Caleb Price treats a denture patient in the school’s main student clinic in June.

Salt Lake City — When the pandemic began escalating earlier this year, there were many questions at the University of Utah School of Dentistry.

How would the fourth-year dental students complete their training requirements by the end of the year?

What would online learning look like for everyone else?

Just as importantly, the faculty and students of the dental school were concerned about the many disadvantaged Utahns who would be unable to access care at the school’s dental clinic that had become a lifeline in the Beehive State.

“Part of the mission of the school is to provide care for many of the underserved communities across the state of Utah,” said Dr. A.J. Smith, associate dean for clinical affairs and patient care at the dental school and past ADA vice president. “It’s in our DNA. We remain deeply committed to this work.”

After closing the clinic in March, the clinic reopened as early as possible, on May 20, to resume treatment due to the needs of its patients and the commitment of the school. The Noorda family, which financed the building of the dental school and provided a substantial endowment for treating underserved and vulnerable populations, stipulated that the school focus its efforts on those groups.

Dr. Wyatt R. Hume, dean of the University of Utah School of Dentistry, said, “We are also deeply thankful to be part of University of Utah Health. University leaders have unequivocally supported us and our efforts to safely and compassionately care for our patient populations.”

Dr. Jeri Bullock, assistant professor appointed as the “safety czar” during the onset of the pandemic, said that their preparations have provided a safe clinical environment possible for not only the students and staff but also the patients.

“The collaboration with multiple entities including the Utah Dental Association, University of Utah Health System and the Utah State legislature has allowed us to continue to serve the community needs and also be at the forefront of COVID-19 safety,” Dr. Bullock said. “Responding to the new normal with COVID-19 affects all dental professionals at all levels and Utah is the greatest example of working together as dental professional we can adapt and move ahead.”

The pandemic has created an even stronger bond between students, faculty and administration, Dr. Bullock said.

“We have had to work together as a cohesive group to ensure that dental education continues in the safest manner possible,” she said. “Students have had a seat at the table not only throughout the pandemic but before and will continue to have a seat after.”

Andrew Horton, a fourth-year dental student this coming fall, said the ability to adapt to change was crucial for all involved in the clinic and the school.

“Personally, the initial month after school closed was the most challenging as we all watched in confusion as the pandemic overcame the world,” Mr. Horton said. “However, I have had to change my mindset and accept the fact that the only certain thing is uncertainty. Flexibility and the inability to make any type of long-term plans has become the new normal during this pandemic.”

Dr. Thomas Segura, an assistant professor at the school of dentistry, said that close collaboration has allowed the school and clinic to resume clinical care.

“Because we are a relatively small school we have an extremely strong sense of community between students, staff and faculty, which has contributed tremendously to an attitude of everything will work out and we will get through this together.”