Growing up, Alaa Diab wasn’t able to visit a dentist regularly because access to care was just out of reach for her family. As she prepares to graduate from the School of Dentistry with her Doctor of Dental Surgery degree this May, Diab says she is grateful for those experiences. It has shaped how she views health care and instills a passionate involvement in community outreach and advocacy.
Everyone deserves care
Born in Sweden and raised in England, Dallas and then Saudi Arabia, Diab was given a broader glimpse of how the world, specifically health care, operates.
“I’ve lived in many different places and have noticed a similar trend — access to oral care is problematic,” she said. “It affects a person’s quality of life, yet at most times it continues to be neglected.”
During her junior year, Diab enrolled in an elective that serves patients at the San Antonio Refugee Health Clinic. The opportunity to care for those going through struggles similar to what she and her family endured has added a personal element to her future profession.
As part of an interprofessional team of dental, medical and nursing students and faculty, Diab helps coordinate dental care for patients. She and her classmates conduct comprehensive dental exams, refer patients who need urgent care to affordable clinics and schedule non-urgent patients for treatment on the clinic’s mission days.
The students have examined more than 325 refugee patients annually from dozens of countries around the globe during Diab’s time at the clinic. As a native Arabic speaker, she also offers translation services, thanks to her Sudanese heritage. Translation, she says, eliminates one barrier preventing many refugees from seeking care.
“Patients appreciate that you are taking the time to explain how to care for their oral health, which makes me content to keep doing what I do. Indeed, as dentists, it is our professional duty to do so. Communication, clarity and building trust are crucial. Everyone deserves care, especially health care. We must remember to do good, do no harm and treat everyone fairly,” she said.
Do no harm
Her experience interacting with refugee patients encourages Diab to be an enthusiastic advocate for cultural diversity among health care professionals. Through her training and as a person of color, she believes it is imperative for everyone in health care to recognize their own implicit biases, referring to unconscious attitudes or life experiences that frame how they view and interact with others.
She is an active member of the school’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee which is charged with recommending initiatives that promote the value of differences in others. Stefanie D. Seitz, DDS, assistant dean for students and committee chair, says Diab has been integral in helping to develop this type of programming for the school and she is grateful for her support.
Last January, Diab submitted a story published in the 2021 issue of Connective Tissue Literature & Visual Arts Journal, a UT Health San Antonio Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics publication.
The story, titled “Side by side, do no harm,” was written as a reflection of the student-led “White Coats for Black Lives” campus event in June 2020 following the death of George Floyd.
“This piece means a lot to me because it illustrates how members of our campus community came together as one to address the disparities in health care against Black lives,” Diab said. “It’s crucial to understand the meaning behind ‘White Coats for Black Lives,’ especially as health care professionals. It acknowledges that inequality, racism and racial bias are real and evident and have resulted in the death of several Black lives. It is essential to continue understanding the meaning of the words in our oath, specifically to do no harm.”
Diab is still undecided as to where she will practice after graduation. However, one thing she is certain of is that it will be at a place in service to those in need.
“UT Health San Antonio is a very prestigious school. My experiences have instilled in me a sense of our common humanity and honed my sense of empathy. Those are the skills I wish most to transfer to my professional dental career.”