Providing Dental Care for Special Needs Patients

by Dr. Jonathan Everett, Kirkland Family Dentistry

As healthcare professionals, we all want to provide the best possible care for each and every patient we serve. With some patients, this is a walk in the park, but for others, it can be more difficult to give them the care they need while making sure they are comfortable and happy. Patients can have a wide variety of special circumstances or disabilities for which dental professionals must be able to accommodate.

Understanding the Needs of Your Patient
Dental patients can have a variety of special conditions, and each of these conditions differs in regards to what a professional should do to make the patient comfortable and receive great care.

First of all, it is important to remember that just because someone has a medical or mental condition does not mean that they are any less deserving of care, compassion, and attention. If we view special needs patients through a compassionate lens, we often realize that they are not so much “disabled” as simply unique in their differences. If we learn to adapt and be flexible as a society and as dental professionals, we can ensure that every patient gets the fair and great treatment he or she deserves.

Understand that many special needs patients may have experienced prejudices and discrimination throughout their lives due to their disability. View the opportunity to interact with a special needs patient as an opportunity to make them feel optimism and confidence about the world and its perceptions of him or her, plus make lasting, strong relationships with patients.

It can be helpful when making appointments to find out about any special needs before the patient is in the office. Ask your receptionists to inquire about conditions a patient may have. If you learn a patient will have special needs, research some basic information about the condition, which can give you an idea about how best to accommodate a patient.

Accommodating Special Needs on a Case By Case Basis
Do you know where the handicap access points are to your building if you have a patient in a wheelchair? Do you know how to safely transfer the patient from the wheelchair to the operating chair? What about the location of a quiet seldom-used room in your office in the case that an autistic patient is overwhelmed and needs a few minutes of quiet? Does anyone in your office know sign language?

As a healthcare professional, it is your responsibility to understand the capacity of your office and staff to assist a special needs patient. Keep on the lookout for weak points in your office’s abilities, and if you notice a gap in care for certain types of patients, try to address that with in-office information sessions. There are also many great resources for online training in how to manage specific types of differently abled patients, such as the e-learning courses on vulnerable patients (for both adults and children) at

Keep in mind that many patients with special needs require multiple caregivers. Make sure there is comfortable space and resources for them in the waiting room and inform them if the appointment will be especially lengthy. Know who is best to contact if there is a dental emergency.

Compassionate Dentistry and Emotional Competence
Understand that for many patients with special needs, a trip to the dentist, something that seems mundane to the rest of us, can be a very physically and emotionally painful experience. The way you greet and communicate with them throughout the course of their appointment can have a profound impact on their experience and perception of dentistry, potentially for life.

It is key not to make patients feel alienated. Greet them as you would any patient, and make sure they know to express any discomfort they feel. Be friendly, open, and patient. For many, it can help to understand exactly what will happen throughout the appointment, so it is useful to explain precisely what you are doing, why, and what you will do next, especially if it may be painful. Decreasing shock and surprise is an essential aspect of working with special needs patients.

If a difficult circumstance arises, try not to act alarmed or frazzled, even if the situation is frustrating. Showing your frustration will do nothing besides exacerbate the situation. Contact the primary caregiver to ask if there are any strategies they use to ease discomfort during difficult episodes. If needed, be sure to seek medical help.

About the Author
Dr. Jonathan Everett Of Kirkland Family Dentistry received his Doctor of Dental Surgery from the University of Washington and completed his undergraduate studies in biochemistry at Washington State University.

A member of the American Dental Association and Academy of Operative Dentistry, Dr. Everett strives to continue providing the most advanced and clinically-proven dental care available in the region. Dr. Everett is the recipient of the International Congress of Oral Implantologists Award.