Dental school students will soon be required to learn how to care for patients with disabilities under new guidelines from an accrediting body.  The Commission on Dental Accreditation approved new standards this summer requiring all U.S. dental schools to train students in the assessment and management of patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities, among other special needs populations.  The change means that by mid-2020, schools that offer degrees in dentistry, orthodontics, dental hygiene and dental assistant programs must include clinical training with a “special needs” population of patients in their graduation requirements or risk losing their accreditation.

The National Council on Disability helped push for the change in standards after publishing a report in 2017 showing that adults with developmental disabilities are at higher risk for poor oral health and face multiple barriers to accessing care, including a shortage of appropriately trained professionals.  The change in dental education standards is a “huge breakthrough” after 20 years of work from dental professionals and disability advocates. People with disabilities, specifically intellectual and developmental disabilities, can’t get dental care because dentists aren’t trained to treat them. It’s not fair they simply can’t get dental care because nobody knows how to do it.

The lights, sounds, textures and smells of a dental office can pose sensory challenges. Dental providers have to be willing to break protocol and allow a patient with autism to wear headphones, or decline the use of water picks, for example.  Historically, only students who completed residency programs in hospitals or who specialized in pediatric dentistry received any clinical training with patients with developmental disabilities. That means people with disabilities are regularly turned away or sent to hospitals for dental care, where they may be treated under unnecessary sedation.  With the changes to dental training standards and the code of conduct, dental professionals will be better prepared to serve all their patients.