Treating Dental Patients with Developmental Disabilities

People with disabilities customarily lack access to dental care because dentists may not have the equipment or skills to meet their special needs. Now, the American Dental Association (ADA) has revised its code of conduct to prohibit dentists from denying care to patients with physical, developmental, or intellectual disabilities. To ensure your practice is in compliance with these new ethics rules, consult an attorney who represents dental professionals.

Why do patients with disabilities lack access to dental care?

Patients with disabilities may be anxious about being treated, more fearful than those who are not disabled, or have difficulty sitting still. This means disabled persons can be more difficult to treat, particularly those with intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, Autism, Tourette syndrome, and Cerebral palsy. In the past these patients were often turned away by dentists who were not capable of providing treatment. 

Due to a lack of access to dental care, however, people with developmental disabilities are more at risk for poor oral health than the non-disabled. As an example, Disability Rights Wisconsin reported that nearly one-third of adults in the state with disabilities had a tooth removed in the last year, while one-in-four had not visited a dentist in the last 12 months.

What changes have been made to the Code of Conduct?

Under the ADA’s revised Code of Conduct (Section 4. A), dental practices are now explicitly prohibited from denying care to their patients because of their disability. Moreover, dentists whose practices are not equipped to handle disabled patients must now refer them to an appropriate dentist, rather than turning them away (Code Section 4. A. 1). The ADA believes that revisions to the code were necessary to ensure that the dental community provides justice and equity for individuals with disabilities by improving access to care. 

The changes came in response to recommendations from the National Council on Disability whose chairman recently said that the change will help to improve access to care, calling it a “step towards full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.” Some dental providers have expressed concern about the additional time needed to treat patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities, however. 

How can dentists better serve patients with developmental disabilities?

Currently, there are few dental practices that specialize in treating this underserved community. That being said, advocates of the disabled believe that most dental practices can make accommodations for patients with special needs.  

While the lights and sounds of a dental office can pose sensory challenges for people with autism, for example, the anxiety for these patients can be alleviated by seeing pictures of the dental office and going over what will happen during their visit. In any event, the ADA is encouraging its members to improve access to healthcare for patients with developmental disabilities.

Why This Matters

While most dentists provide quality care to their patients and are committed to improving oral health, there are challenges to treating patients with developmental disabilities. Nonetheless, dentists should be aware of their responsibilities under the ADA’s revised code of conduct.