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Calif. dental group treats disabled patients

January 20, 2014

By Kimber Solana, ADA News staff


Rancho Mirage, Calif.—When California made cuts to dental care coverage in 2009, Marianne Benson said it made the already difficult task of finding a dentist who can treat her disabled adult son even more challenging.

Patients with disabilities, including those with Down syndrome and autism, often require more time and effort to treat. Some of them have trouble opening their mouths. Sometimes, it takes multiple times to schedule an appointment if a patient has trouble tolerating treatment once in the dental chair.

In addition, patients with disabilities often have more dental problems and, as a result, may need to see dentists more frequently.

It was clear to Mrs. Benson that her son wasn't alone. In 2009, she and her late husband Russell started Desert Friends of the Developmentally Disabled, a nonprofit charity dedicated to serving the special needs of the developmentally disabled.

"We thought we should do something about it," she said.

Through DFDD, they started We Care Dental in December 2009, utilizing a volunteer dentist and borrowing office space about three days a week to treat children with disabilities. In September 2011, they opened their own facility, a 1,210-square-foot, four-chair facility in Rancho Mirage. American Eagle Instruments, DENTSPLY and Patterson Dental Supply donated many of the center's equipment.

Since the grand opening, the center has seen more than 2,000 patients, many of whom travel hundreds of miles to receive much-needed dental care.

"They have done a very good job," said Dr. Olivia Masry, of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. "It's a nice place run with so much heart and a lot of grit."

Dr. Masry, for a week in October 2013, volunteered and helped treat patients, including a 55-year-old man who had not been to a dentist before.

"A typical procedure could take up to three times longer," she said of treating patients with disabilities. "It takes a lot of patience and time."

Because many patients are already heavily medicated, the center has chosen not to administer deep anesthesia to its patients. If required for treatment, patients have to be treated elsewhere, but that is rare.

"Most of the dental services this population needs don't need sedation," Mrs. Benson said. "Our staff and volunteers do an amazing job to earn our patient's trust."

Dr. Masry agrees, adding that dentists who treat disabled patients need patience and a lot of compassion. She advises other dentists to be gentle, to not act anxious, and introduce patients to things slowly.

Mrs. Benson's son had been living in a group home. He couldn't hold a brush properly. His hands are slightly deformed, she said. Her son's tongue is also enlarged, making it difficult to work on his teeth. Four of his bottom teeth required removal.

"The day they were supposed to get pulled, we found out Medi-Cal (the state's medical program to provide health care for people who qualify because of low income or disabilities) no longer covered it (extractions)," she said.

Although the state restored many dental benefits cut a few years ago, finding dentists who can treat patients with disabilities remained a challenge.

Because of the need, Mrs. Benson said, word about the center spread quickly in the disabled community, along with people who were low-income or uninsured.

The center grew and has since hired a dentist who works Monday through Thursday in addition to two regular volunteer dentists and three volunteer dental hygienists. The center also has an affiliation with Western University in Pomona, Calif., where third year dental students come once a month to help treat patients. The center and university are working to expand the program to five days a week, Mrs. Benson said.

As it continues to grow, the center continues to look for more volunteers (dentists, hygienists, dental assistants) to help treat patients and donors to help fund the clinic.

"I'm trying desperately to get grants," Mrs. Benson said. "And we need donations to keep the doors open."

For more information on We Care Dental, visit dfddnow.org, call 1-760-565-6055, or email dfddnow@me.com.