Special Needs Dentistry: Making a Difference for Patients and Caregivers

Jacob Dent, DDS


Going to the dentist can be difficult, especially for patients with an underlying fear and anxiety about dentistry. Moreover, for individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities, those fears and anxieties are compounded by sensory issues, negative behaviors, and the lack of dentists who are willing to even see them.

There are 52 million people in the United States with disabilities and nearly 126,000 dentists nationwide. Unfortunately, less than 10% of dentists feel comfortable treating patients with disabilities because of their lack of training and experience, as well as the patients’ negative reactions to common dental procedures.

Because of this, there is a lack of access to care for patients with special needs. Coupled with the higher risk for dental disease for these patients, this lack of access has contributed to the growing epidemic of poor oral health that we face today. For this reason, finding a high-quality trained dentist who understands disabilities, as well as the behaviors that go along with them, is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack for some families.

A New Clinic

The Pacific Dental Services (PDS) Foundation is a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization that’s committed to creating opportunities to serve locally, nationally, and internationally through improving oral healthcare for underserved patients in need. It has been leading the charge to make dentistry more accessible to people with special needs through training and advocacy. Also, its leadership understands that caring for patients with special needs takes not only special training, but also compassion.

After years of providing dentists special needs education, the PDS Foundation has opened a brand new clinic, Pacific Dental Services Foundation Dentists for Special Needs, in Phoenix, Arizona. The new dental practice provides high-quality dentistry to pediatric and adult patients with special needs. Jack Dillenberg, DDS, will serve as the clinical director. With more than 15 years of experience, I will be the clinic’s practicing dentist.

Our goal is to create an environment in which patients and their families feel safe and comfortable. It is critical to establish trust between the dental team and everyone who walks through our doors. This can only be accomplished with patience and understanding. We will focus on building dental plans and long-term self-help skills for each individual based on their unique abilities and needs. Together with the families, as well as the medical and therapy teams, we will collaborate to provide the best dental care possible.

The team at the not-for-profit PDS Foundation Dentists for Special Needs clinic also supports patients and their caregivers by showing them how to improve their oral hygiene between dental visits. The new dental practice has specially trained dentists who provide their patients with comfort, utilizing environmental and behavioral techniques. The clinic offers patients a full range of services, including emergency care, crowns, fillings, hygiene, implants, root canals, and oral surgery. Additional features of the clinic include:

  • Five fully sensory-integrated operatories
  • Digital X-rays
  • A flexible schedule
  • A sensory-friendly approach to patient care without the use of sedation, which is available for cases where it is absolutely necessary
  • A sensory room
  • State-of-the-art technology
  • A trained clinical team committed to serving the special needs population
  • Televisions in the operatories
  • Wheelchair-friendly space 

The PDS Foundation Dentists for Special Needs staff will also partner with other healthcare groups, organizations, and dental schools that are like minded in the care and wellbeing of individuals with disabilities. Dentists, medical providers, and nutritionists, as well as behavioral, occupational, physical, and speech therapists, are all part of the wellness team that’s in collaboration with the clinic to treat the at-risk special needs population.

As a father of a child with special needs, I empathize with the struggles other families face when they have to take their child to a new doctor. I understand the anxiety everyone feels, and I’m intentional about helping them overcome that fear. I am blessed to have the opportunity and the ability to make a difference in each patient’s life, and I look forward to all of the amazing things we will accomplish together.

Dr. Dent serves as the clinical director of Special Olympics Texas and Special Olympics Louisiana, and he is the founder of a special needs sensory integrated practice in Sugarland, Texas. He received his dental degree from the Louisiana State University School of Dentistry in New Orleans.

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