Specialized Care for Special Needs

Barbara Smith had a difficult time finding dental care services for her son, Mark, a 23-year-old male who has Down syndrome. She was incredibly relieved to find out that the Hospital Dentistry Clinic at the UCLA School of Dentistry would provide treatment for Mark.

“It was a challenge finding a dentist who would see my son,” says Barbara. “There was a waiting list to be seen at the UCLA specialty clinic, but once we were seen, I couldn’t be happier with our care and the quality of service.”

Today, the need for improved health services, including general dentistry, for special needs patients that have a developmental disability couldn’t be more apparent. Unfortunately, many private dental clinics decline to take special needs patients, who tend to be more complex and difficult cases. Furthermore, reimbursement rates are less for these cases, as more time is required in providing treatment for this population.

Another challenge that special needs patients face is the major lack of qualified dentists who have the advanced training needed to treat this segment of the population. Annually, the School of Dentistry awards six advanced education certificates to dentists who have completed the program in General Practice Residency. However, only a small percentage of these dentists go on to treat patients with developmental disabilities and special needs. Therefore, it’s just easier for private clinics to refer special needs patients to universities and teaching institutions.

“Training dentists in the Hospital Dentistry specialty and, specifically, to treat special needs patients is complicated,” says Evelyn Chung, Associate Clinical Professor in the Section of Hospital Dentistry. “Dentists need to be willing and comfortable to do things such as sedation and must be familiar with developmental disabilities.”

Mark Smith is one of many special needs patients who are seen at the Hospital Dentistry Clinic, which specializes in Advanced Comprehensive General Dentistry for patients with complex medical conditions and physical and mental disabilities. Currently, Hospital Dentistry consists of six residents, two full-time faculty members, and several part-time faculty members, mostly volunteers, who see special needs patients. Given the high demand, the waiting list to get an appointment can be anywhere from six to 12 months.

Hospital Dentistry is only one of the many specialty clinics that form the UCLA Dental Clinics. Being able to go to one of the specialty clinics at UCLA is a great option for parents and care givers, like Barbara Smith, that need specialized care. The UCLA Dental Clinics offer quality, affordable dental care at substantially reduced rates. Due to the educational setting, treatment plans can take longer than private practice to initiate, but most patients feel the extra time is worth the quality of care they receive.

“It’s safe to say that we’re one of the leading dental care providers in the region for the special needs population,” says Eric Sung, a Professor of Clinical Dentistry, the Section Chair of Hospital Dentistry, the Vice Chair of the Division of Advanced Prosthodontics and Program Director of the General Practice Residency program. “This population is severely underserved and underfunded, so I’m glad that we can at least take care of a small portion of the patients who need dental care.”

Hospital Dentistry, a subset of the School's Division of Advanced Prosthodontics, has special needs patients referred to the clinic from all over Southern California. Patients come from regional centers in Los Angeles County as well as Loma Linda University Medical Center and other medical and dental clinics in Southern California. The clinic also has out-of-state patients from Las Vegas and even as far as Arizona to be seen for comprehensive dental care.

Insurance providers don’t cover nearly enough of what it takes to provide dental care for this underserved population. If you are interested in supporting the special needs patient care that the Hospital Dentistry Clinic offers, please contact Mallory Gompert, Development Director at (310) 206-6079 or by email at mgompert@support.ucla.edu.