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Dentistry students bring smiles to patients with special needs

(photo courtesy of Oral Health, Total Health)

Not every smile is treated equally, says Ali Sigal, a graduate student at the University of Toronto specializing in paediatric dentistry: people with special needs are routinely underserved by oral health professionals. 

As part of their Doctor of Dental Surgery program, U of T students perform a rotation in the Mount Sinai Clinic, which caters to patients with special needs. But research Sigal conducted in this clinic in 2006 underscores a problem that stretches across North America and beyond. 

“When you ask these families, ‘Have you tried seeing a dentist in your community?’ Nine times out of ten they say, ‘We went to five, we went to eight, before coming here,’” says Sigal.

The wait list at the Mount Sinai Clinic provides another clue: “The wait list just to be seen is a year long. Some patients and their caregivers travel up to eight hours to Toronto for a fifteen-minute check-up,” says Sigal. “This can’t happen.” 

Sigal founded the national non-profit organization, Oral Health, Total Health, and its Sharing Smiles Day event, in response.

Now in its seventh year, the full-day event brings together practising dental professionals, dental students and people with various mental and physical disabilities. The goal: to break down barriers and help dental professionals do more for an underserved patient population.  

“Patients with special needs deserve the same opportunity to optimize their oral health as does anyone. Sharing Smiles Day helps to heighten awareness that we can do more,” says Daniel Haas, dean of the Faculty of Dentistry.

With carnival games, musical performances and dental hygiene lessons for those with special needs, student volunteers from U of T’s Faculty of Dentistry, under the guidance of volunteer mentors, learn that this vulnerable segment of society doesn’t necessarily need to be cared for in a specialized environment or involve specialized care.

“We want to break down attitudinal barriers in training hygienists and dentists,” says student Alicia Clancy, one of the organizers of this year’s event taking place at Oakville’s Le Dome on Saturday, February 8th. 

“Providing an opportunity for patients and providers to meet and to get to know each other is a great first step in ensuring that patients with special needs receive the care they need,” says Dr. Carlos Quiñonez, program director of dental public health at the Faculty. 

Meanwhile, Oral Health, Total Health has been expanding. 

“We now have eleven chapters across Canada,” Sigal said, citing the passion and commitment of its many volunteer organizers.

Oral Health, Total Health’s  (www.ohth.ca) Sharing Smiles Day 2015, sponsored by Manulife Financial, begins Sunday, February 8th at 10:00 a.m. at Le Dome, located at 1173 North Service Rd. East, Oakville, ON L6H 1A7.