Special needs, special care

June 28, 2002
General dentists urged to do their part in treating disabled patients

More than 54 million people in the United States are defined as disabled, according to U.S. Census data, and many of them suffer form poor oral health compounded by unique barriers that keep them from receiving dental care.

But while special training is needed to treat the unique oral health needs of severely disabled individuals, the majority of general dentists have the skills to alleviate the barriers that keep many mildly or moderately disabled individuals from getting the dental care they need, according to an article in the July issue of AGD Impact, the monthly newsmagazine of the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD).

The Surgeon General's 2000 report, "Oral Health in America," noted grave disparities in access to oral health care services for the mentally and physically disabled, especially children. While no national studies have determined the prevalence of oral diseases among various populations with disabilities, a few small-scale studies have shown that the disabled generally have higher rates of caries than the rest of the population and suffer more periodontal disease.

Besides physical and social barriers, low Medicaid reimbursement rates can present a formidable barrier for disabled individuals in need of dental care. According to the Surgeon General's report, families with income below the poverty level are one-third more likely to have a child or children with special needs than families who live above the poverty line.

Legislative wrangling over Medicaid reimbursement has, for years, run the gamut through the state and federal levels, while indigent people often go to extraordinary lengths to seek dental care. Or simply go without.

The AGD is responding to this problem with several initiatives, including working with Donated Dental Services and Special Olympics Special Smiles, and developing a national database of dentists who treat special needs patients. The full article, "Special needs, special care" is available on the AGD Web site (www.agd.org).