Guest Blog: VCU Dental Resident Addresses Health Needs for Patients with Special Health Care Needs

Cole Staines contributed the guest blog below, he is a Pediatric Dental Resident at Virginia Commonwealth University.


As a pediatric dental resident at VCU, I recently took part in the Virginia Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (VA-LEND) program that trains future leaders in the field of childhood neurodevelopment. The training included interactive seminars, clinical and community-based practice, grassroots and policy work, and a literature review to help participants like me better understand the pediatric landscape and areas for improvement.

Coming from my dental background, I used the program as an opportunity to look at oral health care for patients with special health care needs – specifically, the care transition patients experience as they age and move from a pediatric dentist to a general dental practitioner, and the challenges that transition creates.

To understand the challenges patients with special health care needs face as they age, I reviewed a sample of past studies to look for commonalities and studied the Virginia Department of Health’s Dental Directory for Individuals with Special Health Care Needs and Young Children to understand the dental options in Virginia, specifically. Through this process, I identified three top barriers to care:

  • Limited dental options: In my research, the mostly commonly identified barrier was a limited number of dentists trained to treat patients with special health care needs. This creates a longer waiting period for patients and many have to drive longer distances just to receive care. To ensure all patients can access care we must work to train and educate more dentists on treating patients with special health care needs. The good news is that free trainings are taking place in Virginia throughout 2019. See a full list of trainings here.
  • Uncertainty created with a new provider: For many of patients with special health care needs, they receive care from the same pediatric dentist for years, building a relationship and trust with them. As they get older, however, their oral health needs change they must transition to a general or specialty dental practitioner with whom they don’t have a relationship. Since this transition can be challenging, dental teams can make it easier by working with patients and caregivers to build a relationship before care begins. Taking time to communicate with patients will help them feel at ease.
  • Caregiver priorities aren’t focused on oral health: Caregivers for patients with special health care needs have a lot on their plate, and, for many, oral health may not be a top priority. To improve health outcomes for this patient population we, as a health community, must work to raise awareness with caregivers on the role oral health plays in overall health.

If you’re a dentist who is already treating this population, I encourage you to register in the Virginia Dental Directory for Individuals with Special Health Care Needs and Young Children to make sure families around the Commonwealth to find an available dentist. Register for the directory here.

Everyone in the dental community has an opportunity to improve health outcomes for all Virginians. I look forward to the chance to broaden my impact by working with patients with special health care needs.