We Care Dental—Compassionate Care for Special Needs Patients
Most dental practices today are built to maximize efficiency, quickly treating patients and then getting new ones into the chair. While this model is fine for the typical patient, those who don’t fit the mold may find that their options for dental care are lacking. That is the problem that Marianne and Russell Benson set out to address when they opened We Care Dental in Rancho Mirage, Calif. DFDD Clinical Services, dba We Care Dental and its affiliated non-profit organization, Desert Friends of the Developmentally Disabled, were set up to provide much-needed services to developmentally disabled people and their families in the area.
The Bensons were originally inspired to open the dental office when budget cuts in the state of California left many developmentally disabled people without coverage for most healthcare treatments in fields including dentistry, vision, podiatry and audiology. As parents to an adult developmentally disabled son, the Bensons knew that this group of people faced many challenges in getting quality healthcare—even before their state benefits were cut. The family had seen that many dentists decline to treat this population, and those that would treat them often insisted on sedating patients for routine treatment. “Sedation can be extremely dangerous for many of these patients who are already on so much medication,” explains Marianne Benson. The lack of care options was particularly frustrating given that many developmentally disabled patients are not able to perform standard homecare routines, so their dental needs are often greater than the general population’s.
Building a Solution
Russell Benson set out with his wife to enlist colleagues and allies to help meet the need for compassionate dental treatment among this group. The organization initially worked one day a week treating patients in operatory space borrowed from other dentists, but in 2011, We Care Dental opened its own facility to provide no-cost care to uninsured developmentally disabled patients. The four-operatory office features state-of-the-art technology, including equipment donated by A-dec and Patterson Dental.
“If we have to continually worry about our equipment, we can't give our full attention to our patients — and they need our full attention; they need our best,” says Benson. “That's what makes partners like A-dec and Patterson so important to us.”
Sadly, Russell Benson passed away six months after the clinic opened, but his work has been carried on by Marianne and the Board of Directors of Desert Friends of the Developmentally Disabled. Since opening, the clinic has provided a welcome alternative to patients’ typical experience in many dental offices. “We have a patient whose mother took her to a dentist for many years to get her teeth cleaned, and they would insist on knocking her out, and she hated that—rightfully so,” says Benson. “She came to us and we did not sedate her daughter, and we were able to clean her teeth and place a couple of fillings and she was fine. This type of treatment is something that just isn’t being done enough.”
Lupe Dykes, the office manager for the clinic, agrees wholeheartedly. “A lot of our patients have been just automatically sedated in other practices,” she says. “That’s what we want to stay away from. We just want to give them the care and love they need to feel comfortable.”
Investing the Time for Patients
That level of care often takes significantly more time than an appointment in a standard office, but because of We Care’s mission, its staff is ready to help. “When I hire staff, the things that I look for most are a lot of patience and compassion,” says Dykes. “That’s my number one goal.”
Dykes explains how this compassion often pays off in the long term. “A few months ago a kid came in for his first visit and he didn’t want to let us do anything, so we just showed him the equipment and talked to him, and asked him to come back in three months. When we saw him again he let us take four x-rays, and a month later he let us take a full mouth set of x-rays and do an exam. With most patients, as long as they feel like you’re there for them, you care, and you can take a little bit more time for them, that’s all they really need.”
Care that Makes a Difference
Patients’ receptive responses to the staff at We Care have often surprised their families or caregivers. “Our very first week, we had a gentlemen come in and his caregiver told us, ‘He’s not going to let you touch him,’” Dykes says. “I said, ‘Let us try.’ I talked with him for about 10 minutes and showed him the x-ray machine and sensor, and I walked him through everything. He let me take a full mouth set of x-rays and we ended up doing a full exam, cleaning and three fillings for him. This was somebody who had never been treated without sedation. But we’re willing to take the time; if it takes five appointments, we’re willing to do it. Whatever it takes to give them that comfort—that’s what we’re here for.”
We Care recently expanded its mission to include seniors and veterans, in addition to its growing pool of more than 800 developmentally disabled patients. “These groups have similar challenges getting dental care,” says Benson. “There are also still people in the disabled population that we haven’t reached, so we just have to keep getting the word out.”
After 30 years of working in the dental industry, Dykes says that her experience at We Care is truly one of a kind. “Sometimes I have to hold their hand through the whole procedure, but it’s unreal what you get back from these patients,” she says.
“It’s not like a normal dental office. And once we gain their trust, we can see the change in them from visit to visit.”
Desert Friends of the Developmentally Disabled offers many other services in addition to dental care, including:
- Seminars on Special Needs Trusts and Conservatorships
- Public Awareness Program
- Best Friends Forever Program, which pairs high school and college students with special needs children and adults
- A future vision that entails “developing vital services that include dental care, podiatric care, housing, financial counseling, job training and family respite care.”