Youth Smile: enabling access to dental care for homeless young people

Maryam Ahmadyar worked with St Basils charity, Birmingham, to explore the barriers faced by young homeless people in accessing dental care, and develop recommendations to improve services.

dentist working on a young womenSt Basils charity explores the barriers faced by young homeless people in accessing dental care.
Young people experiencing homelessness often find it difficult to look after their teeth.

They may not have access to a toothbrush, toothpaste or even running water, and a poor diet and unstable lifestyle can undermine dental health leading to pain and decay. Those who try to get treatment often experience stigma or face barriers such as lack of a permanent address.

As part of a KE Seed Fund knowledge exchange project, Maryam Ahmadyar worked with young people from St Basils Charity Youth Voice programme in Birmingham to explore some of the challenges young homeless people experience in accessing dental care and to share these insights more widely.

A core group of five worked over six months to interview 20 young people and capture their experience of homelessness and dental health. The project ran from February to June 2021 and so was affected by COVID social distancing restrictions: virtual meetings allowed the coordination group to plan and review activities and interviews were conducted by Zoom.

“We were delighted at how motivated and engaged the core groups was,” says Maryam. “They really drove the project from the beginning, deciding what activities they wanted to do, and proactively setting them up and following them through.”

“Doing things virtually had its challenges. Many of the young people didn’t have access to a stable Internet connection or charged mobile phone and it was harder to get a rapport than it might have been with face-to-face meetings. But COVID also created opportunities. It meant we could interview people all around the UK, the core team did not need to travel to meetings which would have been difficult for them, and many young people felt quite comfortable doing things virtually.”

The interview material was edited into a 15-minute video and trailer aimed at policy makers and service providers whilst infographics and other content were posted on Instagram and Facebook to reach young homeless people and the wider public.

The video and a report of key findings were launched to an online, invited audience at a webinar in June 2021. Participants included researchers and clinicians as well as senior figures from Public Health England (PHE), Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, city councils and charities across England.

“The video had a very clear message,” says Maryam. “That young homeless people care about dental health but there is a gap in provision for them. Young people want policy makers and providers to work with them and the organisations that support them, to design appropriate services to ensure they get the care they need.” Suggested approaches include providing better information about available services, offering outreach and mobile care services, and more recognition of the fact that young people have a right to care, even if they don’t have a fixed address.

“We were delighted at the interest and engagement the webinar generated,” continues Maryam. “We will continue to engage with different stakeholders to disseminate the findings and raise awareness of the issue over the coming months. And we are very grateful to have received the input of so many young people about dental services, and to see how those involved in the project have developed new skills and experience, which they are taking forward in other areas of their lives.”

Maryam Ahmadyar is a final year PhD student at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Science, under the supervision of Dr Geoff Wong, Dr Tanvi Rai, and Professor Blanaid Daly.

Funders: KE Seed Fund