From Cavities to Cancer Patients: Demand Grows for Special Needs Dentistry

Australia – From treating the ravages of chemotherapy on the gums to handling phobic patients with a strong gag reflex, Dr. Helen Marchant has done it all.

“It’s about having a flexibility of mind, because often, you have to cater the way you do things to the individual person,” she says.

“If someone is having a bad day, sometimes we don’t even do any treatment. We might just sit there with a toothbrush and have a little chat so that next time they feel ready.”

Dr. Marchant has opened the first special needs dental practice in Werribee, one of only two in Melbourne, in response to what she says is a growing demand for disability-friendly services.

Special needs (also known as special care) is a relatively new area of dentistry, first accepted by the Dental Board of Australia in 2003. There are about 15 special needs dentists in Australia (seven in Victoria).

The work spans a huge range of clients, including people with intellectual and physical disabilities, people with autism, those with dental anxieties or phobias and people with mental health conditions.

Teeth grinding is prevalent in people with an intellectual disability, who do it for relaxation. And special needs dentists see a large number of patients with physical disabilities who have damaged their front teeth due to falls.

Special needs dentistry includes cancer patients, as radiotherapy dries the mouth out and affects the salivary glands, Dr. Marchant says. Chemotherapy makes patients prone to gum infections that can have serious consequences.

In the case of patients with autism, who find environments like waiting rooms create sensory overload, Dr. Marchant arranges for them or their guardian to call from the car so they can come straight in.

It took a long time to find a practice where the dental chair and equipment could swivel to treat someone in a wheelchair.

The centre’s spare room will become a quiet place for patients with autism who need somewhere to relax.

Until Dr. Marchant opened Western Special Needs Dentistry in Werribee, Jessica Younghusband and her mother, Sandra, had to make the trek from Werribee to Melbourne’s only other special needs clinic, in Blackburn, in the city’s east, (where Dr. Marchant previously worked).

Special needs dentist Dr. Helen Marchant sits with Jessica Younghusband, 26. Jessica has a painful cavity in her mouth and will need surgery. (Photo: Simon O’Dwyer)

But the demand for disability-friendly services in Melbourne’s west is strong because of the Western Suburbs State Special School (the largest special school in Melbourne’s metropolitan region) in Sunshine, says Sandra.

Jessica, 26, has Down syndrome and complex health issues such as arthritis, epilepsy and schizophrenia. Her dentist needs to know how her multiple medications will be affected when she has surgery for a painful tooth cavity.

But the most important thing is for her daughter to be treated like a human being, says Sandra.

“Have a look at them [Dr. Marchant and Jessica], they’re beautiful together. She takes the time, nothing is rushed. Jess is treated with dignity and respect, and why shouldn’t she be?” – Miki Perkins, The Age

Dr. Helen Marchant helps Jessica Younghusband feel at home. (Photo: Simon O’Dwyer)