Progress in Special Needs Dentistry Education

Dentist Treating Young Boy

Several months ago, Enabling Devices reported on the obstacles faced by people with disabilities who seek dental care. We cited the 2017 study, “Neglected for Too Long: Dental Care for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,” conducted by the National Council on Disability (NCD). The study revealed that most graduates of U.S. dental schools, were woefully unprepared to treat individuals with special needs, resulting in alarming oral health deficits for these patients.

This month, there is good news on this front!

Over the summer, NCD announced that all U.S. dental schools will now be required to “revamp their curricula and training programs to be inclusive of patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities.” Dental schools that do not comply with the new standards, which go into effect in the middle of 2020, risk losing their accreditations.

After the publication of NCD’s study two years ago, the organization prevailed upon the American Dental Association (ADA) to change its code of ethics. The ADA complied by revising its COE in 2018. It now reads: “dentists shall not refuse to accept patients into their practice or deny dental service to patients because of the patient’s race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin or disability.”

Yet, dentists were still given leeway to “refer patients with disabilities to other dentists who they deem more experienced.” Since few dentists have experience treating patients with special needs, it remained challenging for patients to find dentists both willing and able to accept their cases. The new requirements from the CODA, mean many more dentists will soon have the education and comfort level they need to treat patients with disabilities.

“Every dental patient in America deserves the same care, whether or not they have a disability,” said NCD Chairman Neil Romano. “NCD applauds this decision that we view as necessary for people with ID/DD to obtain critical access to dental treatment, which is critical to the total health of all people.”

As Dr. Rita Marie Bilello, dental director of Metro Community Health Centers in New York City and a professor of dentistry at New York University told Disability Scoop, ““If even a percentage of the graduating providers realize ‘I’m capable of doing this,’ it’s going to do wonders at chopping down the disparity,” Bilello said. “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.”