People with disabilities face barriers to get dental treatment

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Photo by Royal Navy Media Archive via Flickr

Photo by Royal Navy Media Archive via Flickr

We’ve read about the difficulties of getting dental care to patients in nursing homes and other institutions. People living with disabilities in the community may also face formidable challenges in getting the dental care they need.

Finding a dentist with the training and willingness to accept a patient with special needs can be tough. Medicare and Medicaid benefits may be inadequate. Patients who need to undergo general anesthesia in a hospital because they are frightened or physically unable to lie still in a dental chair often face particularly high barriers to getting dental treatments.

Elizabeth Simpson offered readers of The Virginian-Pilot a detailed look at this issue in a January story that centered on the experiences of one local woman and her family.

“Going to the dentist used to be a simple, routine task for Lauren McAllister, one her family took for granted since she always had good insurance,” Simpson wrote.

“But after she suffered a brain injury in February 2010, dental visits became a trial and a quest.”

McAllister is one of those patients who needs to undergo general anesthesia for her dental treatments, but as Simpson points out, a dentist with skills and hospital privileges can be very difficult to find. McAllister and her family are far from alone in their struggle to obtain specialized dental care.

“It’s a scenario playing out across the country, as more people with disabilities are living in communities instead of institutions such as nursing homes and state facilities for disabled people,” Simpson wrote.

The scarcity of dental providers for people with disabilities is acute, Mark Radler, a retired special-needs dentist assured Simpson.

“If word gets out about a dentist that welcomes disabled patients into their practice, the door is beaten down,” he told her.

In an attempt to address the problem, the Virginia Oral Health Coalition recently began partnering with residential homes and dental schools to help ensure that more dentists get the training they need to help patients with special needs, Simpson wrote.

For now, though, many families will continue their search for dental providers for their loved ones with disabilities.

As McAllister’s mother, Diane Rainier, told Simpson, “If least-restrictive environments are best for people with disabilities, it shouldn’t be this hard to get basic services.”

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