“I’ve been treating patients who have significant disabilities since I started in practice in 1982 and I still do it on a daily basis. I have a dream of a future where every patient with a disability is able to access good dental care across the life span.”
Mark Wolff, DDS, Ph.D.
Morton Amsterdam Dean (Effective July 1, 2018)
University of Pennsylvania
School of Dental Medicine
The University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine is recognized as a leader in the field of dentistry. One of our most important roles as a leading dental school is how we train the dentists of tomorrow, today. When we make decisions in the DDS curriculum, we can have quite an impact on dentistry nation-wide. Within that context, we have become increasingly aware that we need to prepare our students to manage their future patients who will present with some sort of disability, including physical, cognitive, acquired, and developmental disabilities.
The disabilities community is massive in number with a complex range of issues that interfere with their ability to access and receive routine dental care. A small number of these patients may need the special care provided in an Operating Room (OR) equipped with general anesthesia. Given the size and diversity of the disabilities population, adequate treatment cannot be delivered by the currently very limited number of dentists who are trained to provide the required care. That is why our students currently rotate in dental school and community programs that manage patients with disabilities of all forms and we have a special needs clinic that deals with patients who have disabilities.
I’ve been treating patients who have significant disabilities since I started in practice in 1982 and I still do it on a daily basis. Because of the training I received, which enables me to manage my patients’ complex medical, social, and physical issues, they are able to receive care in my office as easily as the general population. We need to find more practitioners who have that capability and make sure that they share their education and training with all of our students. At the same time, we need to educate the parents, families, and caregivers of disabled individuals. We all know tooth decay is essentially a preventable disease, but how can we make this a reality for patients with disabilities?
When we see small children referred to an OR to receive general anesthesia, which is an expensive, potentially life-threatening procedure, even done in the safest hospital environment, and then they get another cavity, we’ve missed something important. We have to get our future dentists to understand how to educate the parent or caregiver, understand with sensitivity the problems that they face, and make sure our suggestions are realistic. If we don’t, all we’re doing is fixing holes in teeth on a temporary basis and nobody wins.
To help tackle this critical issue, as academic leader of Penn Dental Medicine, I will commit the expertise of our faculty to the success of Project Accessible Oral Health’s ideals. Participating with all the other Project Accessible Oral Health stakeholders will help everyone to better understand how disabilities affect an individual’s, their family’s quality of life, and the expense to us and our nation. We will raise these issues in our legislatures, dental schools, and in current dental practices, so that dentists are more comfortable dealing with and treating this population.
I have a dream of a future where every patient with a disability is able to access excellent dental care across the life span in their own community. In this future, ensuring dental care for a disabled individual does not become a burden to family or caregivers, because it’s their local dentist, the same person who is filling mom’s teeth, who can take care of a disabled child, parent, or grandparent. This is the direction in which dentistry must move. Our dentists – current and future – the public, and legislators must start to thinking about caring for people who need an out of the box solution.
All members of our society have the significant right to be treated by competent oral health practitioners. Our most vulnerable populations with physical and intellectual disabilities, and their caregivers, have an absolute need to exceptional care to maintain a quality of life. I hope that all Project Accessible Oral Health participants are inspired to take this on as a project in their own communities and that this movement expands. That, would go a long way in making my dream a reality.