By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Few people relish a visit to the dentist. For patients with physical, intellectual or emotional disabilities, professional oral health care can become even more difficult. Only a few providers in the area offer “special needs” dentistry to ensure they receive proper care.
Robert Dietz, dentist and owner of Dietz Dental in Camillus, said that the most important aspect of his office’s care is “years of experience and training in working with people with special needs,” he said. “There’s not a magic answer, but patience and adapting to the patient.”
He took an elective course in dental school on special needs dentistry, which he said helped him feel equipped and comfortable working with special needs patients. His staff has learned through on-the-job training, he said.
If a patient cannot tolerate treatment at all, he can provide it at North Medical Center while the patient is under general anesthesia.
“Not having problems in these patient populations is more about educating their caretakers and parents,” Dietz said. “It’s about keeping away from processed sugars, increasing fluoride rinses that we might not do as much on other patients. It’s better to not have a problem in the first place than to treat it.”
Though a pediatric practice, Little Jaws Big Smiles Pediatric Dentistry in DeWitt also focuses on special needs patients.
“For individuals with special needs, dentistry is pretty much the same, only you have to feel out the parents and the child to see what their specific issues are,” said Tansy Schoonmaker, one of the dentists and the co-owner of the practice.
Her staff’s soft skills include patience to take more time, developing a special plan for them, discovering their triggers, and working with parents to find ways to improve the whole experience.
She encourages parents to remain calm about a visit because oftentimes, children pick up on their parents’ mood. Parents should also start visits at age 1 as with any other child to build early familiarity with dental visits.
“If you start at age 8, it’s much harder than at 1,” Schoonmaker said. “Routine is important for children in general.”
Some accommodations are simple, such as scheduling a visit for earlier in the day when the office is quieter or calling from the car so staff can usher the family right into the exam room to avoid sitting in the waiting area.
Some patients enjoy distractions like favorite comfort toys, TV or conversation; others prefer no stimulation.
“Some don’t like flavors,” Schoonmaker said. “We have a lot of flavor-free things, like floss, toothbrushes and toothpaste.”
Introducing dental care to patients who may have received little of it in the past relies upon going slowly.
“Just like with anyone, especially if their first time, we do tell, show, do,” Schoonmaker said. “We may use a puppet or if their child brings in their own stuffed toy, we’ll show them on it.”
Some parents like to visit in advance to make a picture book to show their child before the first visit. Or even try a dry run before any work happens.
“We know you know what’s best for your child,” Schoonmaker said.
Some children cannot leave their wheelchairs, so Schoonmaker and her staff treat them in their wheelchairs.
The office can also use medication to reduce anxiety, sedation or, if necessary, general anesthesia, all based upon doctor approval.
“It really comes down to the fact that each child is so very different, whether they have special needs or not,” Schoonmaker said. “You shouldn’t be scared.”