What's Different About Special Needs Dentistry?

Children and adults with special health care needs (SHCN) need oral treatment like everyone else, but they benefit the most from seeing a dentist who specifically caters to these patients. Special needs dentistry is a branch of dentistry for which doctors have undergone additional training, and so has their own assistants and office staff. When looking for a dentist, parents of SHCN patients should find a practitioner who understands the wide range of issues these patients face, and can accommodate those needs.

Dental Care for Children with SHCN

Children with SHCN require routine dental care, but often need additional attention as well. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) defines pediatric special needs dentistry as the practices that treat children with a physical, emotional, developmental, cognitive, sensory or mental impairment, as well as those affected by an orofacial disorder or condition. Treatment for kids with SHCN includes examinations, fillings and cleanings along with regular care, but these dentists embrace a unique understanding of the effects of a child's condition to provide effective treatment. Children affected by an orofacial disorder require this medically specialized dental care.

A Special Needs Dentist Appointment

An appointment with a special needs dentist is generally different from a visit with a regular dentist. The special needs dentist is aware of and tailors his or her approach to the patient's additional needs. According to Evelyn Chung, DDS, Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California Dental School Section of Hospital Dentistry, patients with SHCN usually require a slower approach than usual, and their appointments should be set when the clinic isn't as busy. O. Lee Wilson, DMD and Chair of Dentistry at The University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine, finds the best method for treating sensitive patients with SHCN is to provide them with general anesthesia in an operating room.

Locating a Special Needs Dentist

Many dentists have the compassion and understanding required to treat children with SHCN, but only some specialize in these patients, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). Luckily, these dentists can be found through most usual channels, such as advertising in local media. The Special Care Dentistry Association even maintains a searchable database of registered members. You can also contact your local university or dentistry college; many of them run clinics that treat children and adults with SHCN.

What to Look For

Certain factors can inform parents' decisions when it comes to choosing a special needs dentist for their child. Well-trained office staff at a practice that treats children with SHCN can discern the nature of the condition, and take note of whether he is under regular treatment from a medical practitioner. The AAPD says the receptionist may arrange a slightly longer appointment, and the presence of auxiliary staff under the guidance of the dentist.

Above all, a good special needs dentistry practice will contain specialized equipment, such as an operating theater, and a dentist who takes a detailed history that shapes his or her treatment delivery around the patient's unique needs. Advice on day-to-day oral health care for the child should factor in these needs, as well. For example, using a battery-powered toothbrush such as Colgate® Spongebob provides the bristle movements that challenged children need to take care of their teeth. It's important that parents feel comfortable with the dentist and confident their child's needs are being met.

Raising someone with SHCN can be as rewarding as it is challenging. Finding the right dentist is only one item on a long list of considerations you'll have.