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  • Writer's pictureTroyer & Good, PC

Dental Students Trained to Care for Special Needs

Recently, the Commission on Dental Accreditation approved new standards that will require all U.S. dental schools to train their students in caring for patients with disabilities. This new standard means dental school students will be trained in assessing and managing patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

By 2020, schools that offer degrees in dentistry, orthodontics, dental hygiene, and dental assistant programs must include clinical training with special needs patients in their graduation requirements or the school will risk losing its accreditation.

This change in dental education standards is a "huge breakthrough" after 20 years of work from dental professionals and disability advocates, said Amged Soliman, attorney advisor with the National Council on Disability.

The National Council on Disability advocated for this change in dental standards. It published a report in 2017 showing that adults with developmental disabilities are at higher risk for poor oral health. In addition, these same adults faced multiple barriers to accessing care with appropriately trained professionals.

In 2018, the American Dental Association revised its code of conduct to prohibit the denial of care to patients with physical, developmental, or intellectual disabilities. This revision along with the push from the National Council on Disability has brought about this new standard in dental schools.

"The practice of dentistry is no different for patients with autism, Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities, but the interactions might be," says Dr. Rita Marie Bilello, dental director of Metro Community Health Centers in New York City and a professor of dentistry at New York University.

For some, the lights, sounds, textures, and smells at the dental office can pose sensory challenges. This means dental providers may need to be more flexible with their patients by allowing them to wear headphones or decline using water picks.

Previously, the only students trained in caring for patients with developmental disabilities were those who completed residency programs in hospitals or specialized in pediatric dentistry. Because of this, people with disabilities are often turned away or sent to hospitals for dental care where they may be treated under unnecessary sedation.

However, the new standard will leave dental professionals better prepared to serve all patients. “If you give somebody the opportunity to really learn and to be exposed, it makes you a better dentist. You have increased confidence not only in yourself, you have the ability to empathize in a way that translates to any patient you’re ever going to treat,” said Dr. Bilello.


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