A family dentist's journey working with patients with special health care needs

By: Mark S. Wolff, DDS, Ph.D., Morton Amsterdam Dean, University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine

For 40 years, I saw patients with special health care needs in my busy suburban New York practice. What I learned in my journey is that making accommodations for patients is an essential part of being an oral health care professional.

Let’s examine some definitions. The American Dental Association states, “patients with special needs are those who due to physical, medical, developmental, or cognitive conditions require special consideration when receiving dental treatment.” The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry expands the definition slightly to include “any physical, developmental, mental, sensory, behavioral, cognitive, or emotional impairment or limiting condition that requires medical management, health care intervention, and/or use of specialized services or programs.”

While these definitions are helpful, no person wants to be classified only by their disability. Working with people with disabilities has shown me that it's my responsibility to make the accommodations necessary for them to thrive. Similarly, it's my role to determine the best way to communicate as it is key to effective oral health care. All the successful dental care I have delivered for people with disabilities resulted from my efforts to provide accommodations that made the delivery of care possible.

At the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, we are working to develop a different lens for providing quality oral health to individuals with various special health care needs. One example of this work that we're very proud of is our continuing education series, supported by the Delta Dental Foundation, to build awareness of the barriers to equitable oral health for individuals with disabilities and develop competency in providing care among clinicians. The online series is open to oral health professionals at no charge. Since its launch last year, lecture topics have included defining disabilities across a lifetime and caring for older adults with cognitive impairments. Dentists completing 18 or more of the courses within three years will receive a certificate of completion from Penn Dental Medicine as a Disabilities Dentistry Clinician Expert. More information is available here.

My extensive journey working with patients with special health care needs taught me much about providing better care. I'm pleased that the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine is working to help oral health professionals provide the best possible care to this important group.