Dental Schools to Build Facilities for Patients With Special Needs

Dentistry Today


Families with special needs including physical and cognitive disabilities face significant barriers in accessing dental care. Recognizing these challenges, two dental schools have announced plans to build facilities designed to accommodate these needs as well as curriculum changes that will help their students and faculty better treat these patients.

Penn Dental

The University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine is embarking on a capital project to create the Care Center for Persons with Disabilities, which will serve about 10,000 patients. Renovations to the school’s Schattner Building will allocate approximately 3,000 square feet to the center, expanding access points and installing operatories all designed to accommodate wheelchairs and other support devices.

Also, Penn Dental Medicine students and staff will be expertly trained to handle the unique needs of people with sensory impairments, behavioral problems, psychosocial issues, and other issues requiring sensitive and comprehensive handling. Faculty leaders will be tasked to create guidelines that any dental practice can adopt and which all dental students should be taught, the school reports.

“Every family in every community has a member with a disability. That could include veterans, senior citizens, children with autism spectrum disorders and genetic disorders, you name it. Training dentists who can make a difference for every member of society is a responsibility we take seriously at Penn Dental,” said Mark Wolff, DDS, PhD, Morton Amsterdam Dean at Penn Dental Medicine. 

“Something that we’re trying to instill in Penn Dental students is a holistic view of health. If they can learn how to care for patients with the most demanding needs—a patient who has trouble with balance or someone with language or cognitive impairments—and do so in a way that is compassionate and culturally sensitive, they can deal with any patient imaginable,” said Wolff.

The center is part of the Power of Penn Dental Medicine campaign, which aims to raise $20 million of a $55 million goal for investing in the research enterprise, producing the next generation of leaders, addressing the unmet oral health needs of the community, and building annual unrestricted funds for vital operations within the school. 

As part of the campaign, robust financial aid will enable students to dedicate more time to serving in the care center, receiving the kinds of hands-on training that is necessary to become expert caregivers wherever they practice after graduation, the school says. Also, annual giving enables Wolff to allocate resources necessary to improve Penn Dental’s educational programming and caregiving services, the school notes. 

“Annual giving allows us to expand endeavors that have a direct impact on people,” Wolff said. “With more support, we can make the decision to allocate funds for more financial aid or expand services that treat underserved communities.”

Southern Illinois University 

The Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine (SIU SDM) received a $2 million grant from the Illinois Children Healthcare Foundation (ILCHF) to build a medical operating suite with general anesthesia capabilities for children with special dental care needs within a new Graduate Programs Patient Clinic.

The grant will allow SIU SDM to annually serve an additional 550 pediatric patients requiring oral health services performed under general anesthesia. The project is in response to the need identified in Oral Health in Illinois, a report commissioned by the ILCHF, the Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation, and the Michael Reese Health Trust.

SIU SDM manages about 35,000 patient visits each year at its clinics in Alton and East St. Louis. Also, its students offer oral health treatment, screenings, and education to more than 10,000 individuals annually through a variety of off-campus community outreach events, giving them the training they need to graduate and become highly skilled dentists, the school reports.

“This gift will enable us to treat some of the most vulnerable patients in our state. The support of Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation will help us more effectively manage the treatment of the hundreds of patients seen through the Special Dental Care Needs Program each year,” said Bruce Rotter, DMD, dean of SIU SDM. 

“With our new ambulatory center and this new ability to administer general anesthesia to treat pediatric patients with complex dental care needs, we will be able to significantly expand our overall capacity and provide better care to these children,” said Rotter.

“Far too many children in Illinois don’t receive the dental care they need,” said Heather Alderman, ILCHF president. “Untreated tooth decay can affect children’s diet, sleep, and ability to learn. This situation in unconscionable when you consider how treatable and preventable these diseases are.”

ILCHF began investing in children’s oral health programs in 2004 as a part of its strategy to make comprehensive health services available to all Illinois children. Its early findings that oral health was one of the most pressing, unmet healthcare issues facing Illinois children resulted in its Children’s Oral Health Initiative.

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