High unmet need for dental care among Syrian refugees

High unmet need for dental care is causing pain, embarrassment, worry and reducing quality of life among Syrian refugees, new University of Otago research shows.

The research, based on a survey of 62 adult Syrian refugees resettled in Dunedin about the past few years, found a very high level or unmet medical health need, while financial issues are perceived as a barrier to them receiving oral health care.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Jonathan Broadbent from the Faculty of Dentistry, says little about Syrian refugees. While the research has been carried out in a similar way in other parts of the country, we expect the situation to be similar nationally.

As a result of the evidence collected, it is now calling for a national protocol to standardize what is available and how it should be accessed.

"Access to post-settlement Oral health care for refugees is currently unsatisfactory, and dental clinicians and refugees are unclear," Associate Professor Broadbent says in the recent research paper published in the NZ Dental Journal.

"Oral health care should be accessible to refugees and other at-risk population groups to ensure they have good health and general well-being, and that their human rights are being realized," he says.

"It is concerning that more than 70 per cent or former refugees reported current dental pain and less than 40 per cent had a dental check-up within the 18 months since their arrival."

The majority perceived their oral health as "poor" or "very poor". Many made additional comments about their dental problems. One participant stated: "I am very tired from all the dental problems. I have, no one contacted me for dental treatment, please help me." Another stated: "I want treatment because I feel self-conscious and have no confidence to smile. I feel like I have a bad smell all the time from my mouth. "

In New Zealand, newly-arrived refugees spend six weeks on an orientation program at the Mangere Refugee Settlement Center in Auckland. Their orientation includes oral health screening and treatment for emergency dental problems.

Almost all refugees quality for limited financial assistance for dental care in New Zealand. However, nearly half reported they had not received assistance and many were not available.

This research did not involve the collection of clinical examination data, which Associate Professor Broadbent says should be done in future research to better quantify dental care needs.

However, this lack of clinical data should not stand in the way of efforts to improve care, he says. As a practicing dentist who has treated some of these patients, he characterises their dental health needs as very high.

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