When the term “special needs” is used, individuals with Down syndrome are usually the first image that comes to mind for the general population. What many fail to realize is that “special needs” is a very broad term used to describe a very complex group of individuals. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, special needs is defined as “individual requirements (as for education) of a person with a disadvantaged background” or an individual with “a mental, emotional, or physical disability or a high risk of developing one.” The U.S. Maternal and Child Health Bureau extends this definition further by including individuals that “require health and related services of a type or amount beyond that required” generally. These definitions include a plethora of individuals with conditions that range from Down syndrome and mental illness, to autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), to the medically complex and substance abusers, and include visual, hearing, or speech impairment, among many other conditions.
In 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau found that approximately one in five Americans have a disability of which one out nine children are receiving special education services and one out of 88 children are affected by autism. Other reports have found that 75% of adults with special needs are unemployed while households with at least one member that possesses a mental disability are marked by the highest poverty rate.
These statistics indicate that more 54 million Americans have a condition that has made them the subject of many unmet needs – particularly, dental care. Special needs individuals may have a greater aversion to dental treatment, have increased treatment complications as a result of their condition(s), and/or have more difficulty finding a dental provider who is capable and willing to provide care. This population may also experience challenges such as inability to manage proper at-home dental care due to physical impairments and/or are unable to afford dental services as a result of unemployment or lack dental insurance that successfully covers all of their needs. Therefore, it is a matter of public health that the dental profession directs more attention to this community. As Dr. Anthony Caputo – dental anesthesiologist and ASDOH adjunct faculty – always says, “We must care for those who would otherwise not be treated.”
The special needs community is of particular interest to ASDOH and its students. Not only are ASDOH students required to take courses on treating the special needs population but they rotate frequently through ASDOH’s own Special Needs Clinic. This clinic is directed by Dr. Maureen Romer who has studied and worked extensively with the special needs population and aims to make Special Needs Dentistry the 10th recognized dental specialty. In addition to its well-trained staff that oversees student work and patient care, the Special Needs Clinic also features a dental operatory for wheelchair-bound patients. The device (created by an ASDOH faculty member) allows the patient to receive dental treatment without ever leaving their wheelchair. With such a commitment to serving this population, it is no surprise, that ASDOH ASDA’s Community Service Committee has focused this academic year on reaching those with special needs. Several oral health instruction (OHI) events took place this past fall semester, reaching nearly 2,300 individuals from this community, including their caretakers. We have several more events scheduled this spring to continue to shed light on this population. By doing so, we hope that we can decrease the aversion that this community has to dental care and increase the number of future dentists who are capable and comfortable with providing care to this population.
What type of special needs care does your school offer?
Also, don’t forget to check out ASDA’s winter issue of Mouth dedicated to treating patients in special populations.
Source: Nelson, L. P., Getzin, A., Graham, D., Zhou, J., Wagle, E. M., McQuinston, J., McLaughlin, S., Govind, A., Sadof, M., & Huntington, M.L. (2011). Unmet dental needs and barriers to care for children with significant special health care needs. Pediatric Dentistry, 33, 29-36.
Amy Truong, Arizona ’15