Adding Value to Dental Care for Patients With Disabilities

The Personalized Care Suite in the Care Center for Persons with Disabilities at Penn Dental Medicine is a thoughtfully designed, state-of-the-art space where adults can receive top-notch care from special needs dentists. The facility includes a quiet room, six chair open bay, private operatories, and technology designed to accommodate patients who use wheelchairs, stretchers, or other devices. But, the value goes well beyond that. The center also provides a degree of care coordination that extends well beyond that of the typical dental practice.

When patients choose the Care Center for Persons with Disabilities for their dental care, they also have access to a patient navigator and a nurse practitioner. Together, this team supports the best possible patient experience and quality of care. They also help ensure that the next generation of special needs dentists are prepared with the skills they need to continue providing individuals with physical, cognitive, and developmental disabilities with the oral health care they deserve.

To help you better understand what to expect as a patient of the Care Center for Persons with Disabilities, see what our team had to say about their important roles.

Setting the Stage for Care: Our Patient Navigator

Facilitating the Patient Experience

Before any patient visits the Care Center for Persons with Disabilities, they—or their caregiver —will talk with Ellen, a patient navigator at the Care Center. Ellen’s official job description could be summarized as “care coordinator,” but in reality, it’s much more than that.

From a practical standpoint, Ellen makes appointments for patients and assigns them providers and care spaces based on their needs. During the initial conversation, she assesses their abilities, needs, and medical information to ensure they receive care in the ideal part of the clinic, and that the right equipment is ready when they arrive. She also ensures that all of the patient paperwork in terms of consent and decision-making are in place before the patient arrives.

One of Ellen’s priorities is making sure that providers have the information they need regarding the patient well in advance, so they have plenty of time to do any necessary preparation. Making sure that patients always see the same provider is also a critical concern, as it ensures continuity of care, and supports patient well-being and comfort.

“Many of our patients that have cognitive disabilities or other neurological concerns form a bond with their student, so they feel less frightened when they come into the office,” she says. “Their student that they know, that takes great care of them, is going to be there. Seeing the same face every week is a lot more beneficial than seeing someone new every week.

Beyond Oral Health

In addition to providing support for patients in the Care Suite, Ellen also helps identify and manage issues that influence patients’ overall health, not just their ability to access a special needs dentist. “This includes things like housing insecurity, food insecurity, if they need help at home that they’re not getting, or any kind of community support that they need, I can help link them to that.”

Ultimately, Ellen sees her role as a feature of the Care Center, and one that allows it to work with patients in a way that other providers cannot or will not.

“Instead of taking the patient experience out of the question, our approach is to work with the patient and find what it is that is making them uncomfortable and mitigate that problem,” she says. “My role is helping us do that by making sure that we know to a degree what those needs are before the patient comes in for the first time, so that first visit can be as effective as possible.”

Person-to-Person Care: Our Nurse Practitioner

A Holistic Approach to Oral Health

Another unique feature is the idea of “Person-to-Person care.” This means looking beyond oral health care from a special needs dentist, but caring for the entire person. Because many of the patients who use the Care Center have complex medical conditions, but may not have access to the healthcare they need for different reasons, the team helps them access those services.

Understanding the medical complexity of Care Center Patients—and educating student dentists about how they play into treatment plans and care approaches—is one of the primary responsibilities of our nurse practitioner.

Being a Medical Advocate for Patients

The Care Center’s nurse practitioner is in the unique position of being an advanced practice nurse in a dental practice, which does not typically have non-dental medical providers on staff. This is important because many Care Center patients have unusually complex medical histories, and dental needs that need to be aligned with the safety and appropriateness of treatment.

This alignment includes communicating with primary care providers and specialists so the Care Center team can work directly with the providers outside of dentistry. This ensures the dental team is aware of the patient’s medical issues and can practice safely.

In the event there is a medical emergency in the clinic—which can happen—the nurse practitioner is there to provide medical support. Like Ellen, the nurse practitioner helps address the logistical issues and social determinants that create barriers or stressors related to proposed treatment plans. They are in a position to help solve problems related to transportation, geography, ability to pay for care, or even arranging appointments so caregivers can be available.

How Penn Dental Medicine is Revolutionizing Dentistry for Special Needs Patients

The Care Center for Persons with Disabilities is different from other dental practices in many ways, both big and small, and committed to ensuring access to care for those who have been traditionally underserved.

“We’re here to slow it down, and make sure that that patient leaves feeling comfortable,” Ellen says. “We want dental care to be accessible in both a physical and an emotional way.”

The Care Center is at the forefront of a movement toward a more accessible, interdisciplinary approach to dentistry. Dentists can take care of individuals of all abilities, the Care Center is training the next generation to be able to do that and create more access for everyone.

If you are interested in learning more about the Care Suite or want to make an appointment, fill out the form below or call (215) 898-8180.