NYU Opens Oral Health Center for People With Disabilities

Dentistry Today
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The New York University (NYU) College of Dentistry has opened its Oral Health Center for People with Disabilities. Located in the school’s Weissman Building at First Avenue and 24th Street, the 8,000-square-foot center provides comprehensive care for patients whose physical, cognitive, or developmental disabilities or medical conditions prevent them from receiving care in a conventional dental setting.

“The NYU Dentistry Oral Health Center for People with Disabilities addresses a major public health challenge by providing comprehensive, compassionate dental care for people with a full range of disabilities who experience significant barriers to accessing care,” said Charles N. Bertolami, DDS, DMedSc, the Herman Robert Fox Dean of NYU Dentistry.

“Equally important, care at the center is ongoing. By providing dental care across each patient’s lifespan, the center aims to break the vicious cycle of neglect and repeated hospitalization,” said Bertolami.

NYU Dentistry reports that about 950,000 people in New York City’s 8.5 million population have some form of disability, including 99,000 who use wheelchairs. The school also notes that people with disabilities have worse oral health than the general population and are less likely to have access to dental care services. 

Barriers to dental care for the disabled include physically accessing dentists’ offices, which may not be able to accommodate wheelchairs or other assistive devices. Also, some dentists lack confidence in their ability to meet the needs of people with disabilities, so they may not be prepared or willing to welcome disabled patients. 

As a result, NYU Dentistry says, patients with disabilities are often referred to hospitals for dental care because of the need for sedation, and they may wait as long as six months to get an appointment to be seen in an operating room. These visits often are one-time emergencies without follow-up or continuous preventive care, triggering a cycle of recurring dental issues. 

“Numerous studies have shown generally poor access to vital health services for both children and adults with disabilities,” said Marco Damiani, chief executive officer of AHRC New York City, one of the largest nonprofits supporting people with disabilities in the state of New York. 

“The NYU Dentistry Oral Health Center for People with Disabilities will promote a greatly improved access, but it exceeds basic expectations by enabling access to a welcoming state-of-the-art facility, dental treatment services from highly experienced and engaged faculty, and a service vision that underscores dignity, respect, and coordination of care,” said Damiani.

The center was designed to meet the unique and diverse needs of people with a range of disabilities. It was completed through a $12 million renovation by Henningson, Durham & Richardson Architecture and Engineering. It features nine patient treatment rooms and two fully equipped sedation suites to provide both inhaled and intravenous sedation administered under the supervision of anesthesiologists.

“Our on-site sedation options eliminate the need for most patients to be referred to hospitals,” said Ronald Kosinski, DMD, clinical director of the facility and clinical associate professor at NYU Dentistry. “In cases where general anesthesia is required, patients can be treated by specially trained NYU Dentistry faculty at one of our hospital affiliates—NYU Langone Health or Bellevue Hospital Center—but remain patients of record at the NYU College of Dentistry.”

A multisensory room located off the waiting area will offer patients an immersive environment to reduce their anxiety, help them relax, and engage their senses. It is being developed in partnership with the NYU Ability Project, an interdisciplinary team of health specialists, engineers, and artists working at the intersection of disability and technology. 

Led by Kosinski, a pediatric dentist and dental anesthesia specialist, the center is staffed by a multidisciplinary faculty, a nurse practitioner, a nurse, a social worker, three patient-service representatives, a clinic manager, and a patient care coordinator. Patients are cared for by NYU Dentistry faculty with particular expertise in treating people with disabilities. Senior dental students provide basic dental care not requiring sedation.

NYU Dentistry collaborated with healthcare and advocacy groups providing general healthcare and support for people with disabilities in developing the facility. The school also conducted focus groups of people with disabilities in cooperation with the NYU Ability Project, a collaboration of the Tandon School of Engineering, the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and the Tisch School of the Arts.

The school says the center builds upon its long history of educating dental students to care for patients with special needs. NYU Dentistry was one of 11 schools funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in the 1970s to train dental students in caring for people with disabilities.

Since 1971, NYU Dentistry says it has run a successful Special Patient Care Program, an honors program for a small group of exceptional dental students to gain experience working with people with disabilities. Over time, the new center will expand these educational opportunities to all NYU Dentistry students and residents, expanding patient-care delivery. 

“The Oral Health Center for People with Disabilities not only offers much needed clinical services to patients, but also a unique training opportunity for our students. Our goal is to create the next generation of dentists who will practice with competence, confidence, and compassion in providing quality dental care for people with disabilities,” said Bertolami.

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