Millions of Americans lack access to basic dental care. Moreover, an alarming percentage of people with special needs are unaware of the condition of their oral health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 6.5 million people in the United States have an intellectual disability. Unfortunately, many dentists are unable to treat patients with disabilities because of their lack of professional training and the patients’ reactions to common dental procedures. Access to specialized care such as dentistry is therefore among the main healthcare concerns for people with special needs.
According to the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes Special Smiles program for dental screenings and education, in the United States, 46% of athletes with intellectual disabilities present signs of gingivitis, 25% have untreated tooth decay, 12% report pain in their mouth, and 9% receive an urgent dental referral. When left untreated, oral disease can be painful and expensive to treat.
Special Olympics provides athletes comprehensive oral healthcare information, free dental screenings, and instructions on correct brushing and flossing from volunteer dental professionals at Special Olympic events. These Special Smiles screenings are often the first time that athletes ever see a dentist.
Special Smiles is one of eight Special Olympics Healthy Athletes disciplines that have been offered to athletes around the world since 1997. Over the years, Special Olympics has conducted more than 2 million health screenings and has trained close to 300,000 health professionals and students to treat people with intellectual disabilities.
The Smile Generation, a referral service that connects patients with trusted dental practices, supported by Pacific Dental Services, is proud to partner with Special Olympics International to help support athletes in their journey to finding care and educating them on the importance of maintaining good oral hygiene.
Oral health impacts every athlete’s ability to train and compete, especially Special Olympics athletes, who experience greater health risks and often have limited access to community health services and interventions.
“Oral healthcare is one of the biggest unmet healthcare needs for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Many people with intellectual disabilities have severe complications that are preventable with the right access to dental care and training for healthcare providers to gain confidence in treating people with intellectual disabilities,” said Dr. Alicia Bazzano, chief health officer, Special Olympics.
“It’s incredibly essential to educate and support patients and caregivers to maintain good oral hygiene. The partnership between Smile Generation and Special Olympics is very important because it connects patients with trusted and trained dentists, helping us break down existing healthcare barriers for individuals with intellectual disabilities,” said Bazzano.
The need for educational materials on oral care that is accessible to people with intellectual disabilities is stark. That is why Smile Generation-trusted dentists Dr. Isaac Navarro and Dr. Miran Ho worked with Special Olympics athletes Novie Craven and Justin Hunsinger to create a set of informative video segments about preparing for a dental visit, flossing, adapting toothbrushes, COVID-19 safety, and more.
Additional resources include a “Caregiver’s Guide to Oral Health,” an informative guide designed to help develop and maintain a complete oral hygiene program. The guide is devoted to easy to follow instructions on oral hygiene practices as well as suggestions for adaptive positions.
The guide also provides important information about common dental problems, including oral health considerations during the growth and development of a child with intellectual disabilities. These materials are easy to understand, share, and put into practice by people of all abilities.
“Providing oral healthcare to athletes is essential to helping them feel and perform their best,” said Dr. Ho. “This includes resources to help educate them about the link between oral health and whole-body health, known as the Mouth-Body Connection. Research shows that harmful bacteria and inflammation in the mouth can indicate and even cause systemic conditions throughout the body. By improving oral health, this will also improve overall quality of life.”
Visit specialolympics.org/oral-health and smilegeneration.com/education/mouth-body-connection to access a range of interactive resources.
Ms. Kingsley has been with Pacific Dental Services since 2016 and currently serves as the senior specialist of corporate social responsibility. She has managed partnerships with Special Olympics International, charity: water, KaBoom! and the PDS Foundation. She leads international services trips to Guatemala and Fiji and team member volunteer efforts across the country. She is passionate about inspiring team members, creating transformational experiences for teams, and engaging in acts of service. She can be reached at KingsleyC@pacden.com.