Special Care Dentistry for Adults with Disabilities

Adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD) frequently encounter more difficulty accessing dental care than do people without these disabilities. Not all providers adequately take dental care considerations for disabled adults into account. Even worse, 75% of dental students told the National Council on Disability they received “little to no preparation in providing care to people with I/DD.”

Man with disabilities in wheelchair shuts his eyes and holds left hand to jaw, indicating he feels oral health care.

But at Penn Dental Medicine (PDM), we’re committed to improving the oral hygiene and health of all patients, including people with disabilities.

Our Care Center for Persons with Disabilities, with its Personalized Care Suite, is a unique, state-of-the-art facility making dental treatments accessible to people with a wide range of intellectual, developmental, and physical disabilities. Each of our student dentists rotates through the Center as part of their training. We’re ensuring the next generation of dental professionals knows how to care for people with disabilities.

Read on to find out more about some of the most pressing dental care considerations for adults with I/DD, and how PDM addresses them.

Breaking Through Barriers to Dental Service for Adults with I/DD

More than 7 million people in the U.S. have intellectual or developmental disabilities. People with autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, spina bifida, or other I/DD tend to encounter more challenges accessing health care. Unfortunately, oral health care often proves no exception.

Here are some dental care considerations for adults with disabilities we at PDM take seriously to make sure these patients get proper attention and treatment.

  • Patients often fear going to the dentist.

Anxiety about sitting in the dental chair isn’t limited to adults with I/DD. But for them it can be especially acute. Research suggests the higher the level of intellectual disability, the greater dental anxiety can be. Dental fear is one reason many of our patients haven’t seen a dentist or hygienist in many years.

At PDM, our student dentists learn and use patient-centered techniques proven to reduce anxiety around dental treatments. They adopt a trauma-informed approach to avoid triggering patients. And our Personalized Care Suite includes a quiet room to help calm patients who might be easily agitated.

  • Patients need accommodations not all dentists provide.

Only in late 2018 did the American Dental Association (ADA) revise its code of conduct to prohibit denying care to patients with physical, intellectual, or developmental disabilities. Now, if dental professionals can’t accommodate patients with disabilities, they must refer those patients to someone who can.

PDM’s Personalized Care Suite features several physical accommodations for patients with disabilities. They include:

  • Hallways wide enough for two wheelchairs
  • A wheelchair lift room so patients may sit in their wheelchairs rather than a dental chair
  • Hover chair rooms for non-ambulatory patients

In addition, PDM emphasizes accommodating patients over sedating them. General anesthetic or intravenous sedation is often easier for a dentist, but it’s not always in the patient’s best interests. It can lead to them getting dental exams only once a year—or even less frequently.

Accommodation leads to patients with disabilities getting dental treatments more often, with fewer risks.

  • Patients with communication differences can have difficulty alerting caregivers to new or worsened pain.

Disabilities can make it hard for people to report their dental pain. As a result, that pain can go unrelieved and unresolved far longer than it should.

Woman with facial characteristics of Down syndrome playfully tilts her head and points to her smile after dental treatments.

PDM performs a detailed pre-screening before a patient’s first visit to accurately determine the scope of services needed. As part of our pre-appointment discussions with patients and/or their caregivers, we can help caregivers recognize non-verbal and other ways people with disabilities communicate their oral pain.

PDM works closely with caregivers, teaching them skills they can use to help promote easier and more effective oral hygiene at home. These skills can achieve a reduction in oral pain for the patient, and are often transferrable to other aspects of caregiving.

Get Peace of Mind When You Choose Penn Dental Medicine

As recently as 2019, L.M. Ward and colleagues, writing in the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, found that although past studies have called attention to the significant dental care considerations for disabled adults, this population still experienced poor oral health. Having aged out of pediatrics, these adults still need special care dentistry as much as they did when they were children.

PDM’s Personalized Care Suite serves patients aged 14 and older. Its physical design, advanced technology, and state-of-the-art tools enable our dentists to provide adults with I/DD comprehensive care tailored to their needs.

If you’re an adult with a disability or someone caring for an adult with I/DD who needs peace of mind knowing a quality dental practice can accommodate you, even when the need for care is urgent, contact PDM today.

Call 215-898-8180, or schedule your appointment online now.

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We look forward to serving you and your family.