Patient Care

Caring for Patients with Special Needs

Dental offices can be particularly scary for people with special needs, especially if it is a new environment with people they don’t recognize. As a dental care provider, it’s possible to minimize negative outcomes in these situations. Whether allowing an anxiety dog into the office during treatment or simply taking steps to prepare the space to minimize harsh lights, dental professionals can help meet the needs of patients with special needs without limiting their ability to do their job.

A Gap in Training Exists

Most dentists don’t undergo significant training to help them manage the unique circumstances of a child with Down syndrome or an adult with autism. Often, providers rely on parents to control the situation, taking their lead. While there may not be a strong level of training to prepare dental providers for this type of work, it’s a necessary skill to have.
Children with Down syndrome, for example, are more likely to have medical problems related to poor oral health. As a result, regular and ongoing care is a must for these children. And in reality, they should not be treated any differently than children.

How do You Create a Dental Practice That’s Welcoming and Supportive of People with Special Needs
The bottom line is that many people just do not know what they should and should not do to help support these needs. You can improve your dental office in several ways.
Ask parents the key questions you have
The best way to create an inclusive environment is simply to ask what you can do. Discuss the specifics of the child with parents, and open the door to learning what that child’s needs are. Because every child with Down syndrome or those on the autism spectrum has very different needs, the best support your dental office can provide is a simple question to the parents on how to make the experience the best it can be.
Make the experience positive
As your patients come in, create a positive, welcoming environment. Smile, encourage, and support their needs. Most dental professionals already do this for their patients, and it’s important to provide that same high-level of care to all patients. Put your focus on your patient, even if it means spending a bit more time later tracking details. Individualized treatment is one of the best ways to make anyone feel valued.
Encourage your patients to communicate with you
Many times, it seems easier to just get to work and get the job done but listening to what patients say can actually improve outcomes. For example, allow your patients to tell you what they need or what they are concerned about, and encourage them to let you know what they want. Even if you believe you know what your patients needs, follow their lead.
You may have some patients who have very specific requests or needs. While that may seem off-putting and may mean doing your job a bit differently than you would have, it could mean ensuring that patient’s needs are met properly. Appreciate that they are communicating with you what they need, as your ability to support them in those needs is what keeps them coming in to care for their teeth.
Ask what can reduce anxiety
Caregivers or the patients themselves can often provide a great deal of information about what they are feeling, but how will you know how to help reduce their stress or anxiety during a procedure? It’s often best to simply ask. Provide information about what is going to happen, especially when it comes to loud sounds they may not be familiar with, and reassure them you are not going to hurt them.
Speak to caregivers and your patients openly about what could help them to be more at ease. For some, that may mean having a parent hold their hand. For others, especially younger children, it may mean having the child sit on the parent’s lap. Other times, they may benefit from music playing or something on the TV to distract them.
Talk to caregivers about nonverbal patient needs
When providing care for a patient that’s nonverbal, it’s essential to understand how they communicate. Ask their caregiver to provide some information. For example, ask what normal behavior is and what is not. Find out what signs or indications they will give you that could help you better understand their specific needs at that moment. By understanding this, you’re better able to work to meet their needs.
Keep conversations light and not dental focused
Many times, dental providers offer their patients lots of information during their appointment. It’s a great way to educate and support patients in maintaining their oral health. For some people, that could lead to information overload or increase stress and fear. If your patient isn’t going to understand, hold off until after the appointment to provide valuable tips or information. That way, they are over the difficult part of the appointment. Always communicate in a way that’s best supported by the patient.
Meet their needs as best you can
Perhaps one of the most important steps you can take as a dental care provider is to have a conversation over the phone about what their needs are. Will the person be in a wheelchair that needs to fit into the dental space? Will they benefit from any type of specialized support during the appointment? If you are considering sedation dentistry services, find out if that’s acceptable with any medications the individual needs.
The effort you put into creating a good experience, the better you’re able to support your patient’s unique needs. Take some time to consider what that could mean to your patients, including encouraging them to come back to the office to continue their dental care. Fill the void that is present in many communities for people with special needs.

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