NYU Dentistry helps address oral health crises faced by city’s migrants

‘I think it’s amazing that we can give back to our community and set an example for others to do the same’

Reaching out: A team from NYU Dentistry poses at the Open Arms Resource Fair, a May 2023 event hosted by The Shed in Hudson Yards. The quarterly event provides resources to newly arrived migrant families and families living in temporary housing.

By the end of 2023, more than 110,000 migrants arrived in New York City, said Rose Amable, D.D.S., clinical assistant professor of pediatric dentistry at the New York University College of Dentistry.

Additionally, up to 1,000 asylum-seekers are arriving in New York City each week.

Many of them are parents and caregivers with young children who have entered the public school system.

“Having personally navigated the challenges of adapting to a new country as a first-generation Latina from Peru, I deeply empathize with the migrant families,” said Dr. Amable. “This experience equips me with a profound understanding of the complexities involved in adjusting to a new lifestyle, navigating unfamiliar health care and educational systems and learning a new language.”

Because of the efforts of Dr. Amable and others at the College of Dentistry and in the community, NYU Dentistry has stepped up to overcome the barriers to care for migrant children through outreach events, school-based care and follow-up care at the college.

The need is apparent, she said.

“Many of the families of migrant children in New York City, having migrated through multiple countries before settling in the U.S., have had a prolonged lack of a dental home leading to a significant increase in dental caries,” Dr. Amable said. “The migrant children population in New York City has demonstrated relatively low utilization of dental services. Additional barriers to dental care in the migrant population include language barriers, difficulty navigating an unfamiliar health care system, differing cultural norms and beliefs which include understanding of the significance of establishing a dental home, underscore the complexity of the issue.”

NYU dental professionals and students take part in outreach events to provide oral health education, toothbrushes, dental exams and fluoride varnish. So far, they’ve provided dental exams and fluoride varnish to about 300 children and have shared oral health information and resources with approximately 1,200 families at Open Arms Resource Fairs at The Shed, a community event organized to provide resources to families living in city’s temporary housing.

NYU Dentistry also provides dental screenings and care in New York City public schools and Head Start centers. An estimated 200 children from asylum-seeking families are receiving ongoing dental care in schools.  

 Not least is follow-up care at NYU Dentistry. Children who are screened at outreach events and those who are seen in schools but need more in-depth care are invited to schedule appointments at NYU Dentistry. Care is provided at no cost to families, with funding from New York City Council covering the cost of basic oral health care for children who are uninsured.

One of the dental students involved in caring for the young patients is Daniela Pereira, who was born in Ecuador and moved to the U.S. when she was 7.

The third-year student said it was important for NYU Dentistry to initiate efforts to improve the oral health of the migrant population because it has the resources, faculty members and students available to provide the care, as well as being centrally located with many clinic operatories available. 

“One of the main reasons I personally chose to attend NYU Dentistry was because of all the outreach programs available to participate in,” Ms. Pereira said. “I think it’s amazing that we can give back to our community and set an example for others to do the same.”

She has formative memories of when her family first emigrated to the U.S.

“I remember going to appointments as a young child with my mom when neither of us could speak English, as we struggled to communicate and navigate the health care system in the U.S.,” she said.

Ms. Pereira, like many of her classmates, speaks Spanish.

“We were happy to have the opportunity to talk in Spanish to parents and patients to help them feel more comfortable,” she said. “I think that when a dentist or health care provider speaks your language, the patient is more willing to ask questions and can better understand the treatment that needs to be done.”

Ms. Pereira, alongside Dr. Amable, completed a case study presentation on an asylum-seeking child at one of the nearby schools that highlighted the migrants’ unique needs. The case won first place in the Hispanic Dental Association’s annual National Nuestros Ninos competition, co-sponsored by Colgate.

“Winning first place with a pediatric dental case presentation based on an asylum-seeking child from Peru reflects our commitment to emphasizing the importance of ensuring proper care for all children,” Dr. Amable said. “This achievement specifically highlights the unique challenges faced by this population, emphasizing the barriers they encounter in accessing dental care. Through this recognition, we aim to advocate for improved access and support for dental needs of vulnerable populations, fostering awareness of the barriers they face.”

Jennifer Samphaoron is assistant principal of the nearby PS130 school, which has seen its enrollment swell due to the newly arrived migrant children.

She said NYU Dentistry has been a truly valued and appreciated partner to the school for many years and had shown such care and compassion for the new families.

“When families first arrived, they helped us with securing basic dental hygiene items like toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss,” Ms. Samphaoron said. “Students were able to see a dentist at school, to receive basic care here, and were given follow-up appointments if more extensive treatment was needed. I think it's very reassuring for families that their children are offered this crucial health service at school, and that they have the ability to follow up. At the school, we are so grateful for the service and partnership of everyone at NYU Dentistry.”

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