Eastman Institute for Oral Health, Golisano Foundation and Special Olympics are partnering to bridge a long-standing gap to improve access and oral health care for people with intellectual disabilities (ID) and hosted A Day for Special Smiles, a first-of-its kind event in the area.
Access to dental care is the most unmet health care need in children and adults with developmental disabilities, and for many years, Special Olympic athletes have had oral health screenings, and determined that one in four athletes has untreated dental decay that can cause pain and other medical problems. Despite referrals for care, most of these athletes are not getting the care they need for a variety of reasons uncovered by a recent Golisano Foundation/Eastman Dental-sponsored Task Force.
“People with disabilities face many barriers to accessing high-quality health care, including difficulties in finding health providers who are trained and willing to treat people with disabilities and who will accept their insurance,” said Ann Costello, director of the Golisano Foundation.
But thanks to a new Special Olympics initiative dedicated to providing comprehensive, community-based health care and resources for people with ID, and to educating healthcare professionals, A Day for Special Smiles is the first step in closing this gap. The initiative, Special Olympics Healthy Communities is funded by a $12 million donation from Tom Golisano.
“By supporting Healthy Communities, we hope to eliminate some of the barriers, and connect people with care in their community to address problems that are preventable and treatable and can help them live a fuller and more productive life,” said Onolee Stephan, director, Community Health Program for Special Olympics in Rochester.
Athletes received treatment for their most immediate dental needs including baseline x-rays, full exams, fillings, and cleanings. More than 30 volunteers, including dentists, dental students, dental assistants, faculty, and staff provided the care at Eastman Dental Downtown, who donated the clinic space and time.
“Part of our mission is to care for the underserved, including people with intellectual disabilities, complex diseases, and geriatric patients, among others,” said Dr. Eli Eliav, director, Eastman Institute for Oral Health. “We’re committed to sharing our expertise in this area with the world and are establishing fellowship and training programs to expand this vital educational initiative.”
“I really enjoyed this experience today,” said Bharathi Gorantla, DDS, a first-year resident in the EIOH Advanced Education in General Dentistry program, who had previously not had any interactions with adults with ID. “I learned that taking a little extra time is beneficial in treating the patient, to allow for successful communication and comfort level for the patient.”
“We are faced with so many issues in this field toward dental care, that today’s event was a phenomenal way for people to get adequate care, especially in between their six month visits,” said Tim Rifenberg, a residential manager at CDS Monarch, and who brought 13 people for treatment. “These folks have more dental issues and more challenges, and in my opinion, require more care than every six months. A big challenge is the lack of providers who accept Medicaid and are familiar or patient with the ID disability population.”
Another challenge, Rifenberg added, is staffing issues. Having a staff member accompany the patients to the dentist or to A Day for Special Smiles event is critical for a successful visit, he said. “Ideally, having a portable unit travel to the group homes would be an incredible service,” said Rifenberg, who has worked with people with ID for 25 years.
“I want to come here for good,” said Mike Traver, a Special Olympics athlete who lives in a CDS Monarch residence. “I like it here…I like the treatment, and was treated nicely.”
Abrahim Caroci, DMD, who is a resident at Eastman Institute for Oral Health, proposed and organized the country’s first A Day for Special Smiles in Arizona, and played an integral role in establishing this second event. “We wanted to provide an experience for current and future dentists and oral health leaders to work with their local population with ID in order to forge a relationship that would last beyond the academic years,” said Caroci. “Eastman is a perfect place to foster this relationship.”
“I think it’s great for Eastman Dental to provide a safety net for the community and help increase awareness through this event,” said Steven Perlman, DDS, founder of the Special Olympics’ Special Smiles program,and clinical professor of Pediatric Dentistry at The Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine. He was at the event to emphasize the critical importance of improving access to dental care for people with ID. “The great thing here is that residents and faculty are creating a model that can be taken to other schools to follow.”
“One of the pillars of our grant is about training the next generation of health care providers,” Costello said as she thanked volunteers before patients arrived. “As you continue through your work, education and practice, I hope you remember this day and welcome people with ID in your practice. Educate your future fellow providers about the importance of making your practice accessible not only clinically, but physically, emotionally, and spiritually.”
With the country’s first two A Day for Special Smiles events a success, organizers will look at some data collected to determine next steps.
“We want to compare the dental health of athletes who came to the Day for Special Smiles with those athletes who did not, to determine if the event has an impact on the number of athletes who receive dental care after being screened at a Special Olympics event,” explained Stephan. “We also want to determine the impact of the event on dental providers’ perceptions of people with intellectual disabilities before and after participating.”
Key in organizing the event are members of the local student chapter of American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry (AADMD) and the Strong Center for Developmental Disability, Drs. Lisa DeLucia, Abrahim Caroci, Vineela Redla, and Laura Robinson, MPH, a training and outreach coordinator for adults with IDD in the Neurodevelopmental and Behavioral Pediatrics Division at URMC.
Donations were generously provided by Patterson Dental Supplies, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Tasteful Connections, and Cam’s Pizzeria.