UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry opens special-care dental clinic in South Texas

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The UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry has opened a special-care dental clinic, the first of its kind in an academic setting in South Texas that will serve people of all ages with intellectual, developmental, cognitive or physical disabilities.

With spacious, specially designed treatment rooms featuring adjustable sound and lighting and even a "Zen Den" multi-sensory room to help reduce anxiety, the Phil and Karen Hunke Special Care Clinic occupies approximately 4,300 square feet on the first floor of the school's Center for Oral Health Care and Research, at 8210 Floyd Curl Drive. The clinic is named for San Antonio-area philanthropists who provided seed money for the project. Phil Hunke, DDS, is a retired pediatric dentist.

The state-of-the-art space includes seven dental treatment rooms and five rooms equipped with the capability to deliver conscious sedation, all to accommodate those with special needs and provide services for up to 40 patients per day. The clinic will serve the community and provide training for students.

Numerous barriers exist in the current oral health care delivery model for individuals with special needs. At the heart of the issue is a lack of workforce trained and willing in the provision of services for this population."

Jennifer Farrell, DDS, DABSCSD, inaugural director of the clinic

In one study, only 10% of dentists responding to a survey reported treating individuals with special needs and only one in four students had hands-on experience with those patients while in dental school.

"Dental education institutions are the vital link in building a clinician base that will deliver services to this significantly underserved population," said Peter M. Loomer, DDS, PhD, MBA, dean of the UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry.

Serving vital roles

The clinic serves three vital roles. In addition to seeing patients from throughout South Texas, the facility will provide academic and clinical training to students in special-care dentistry across several disciplines, including dental and dental hygiene, medical, physician assistant and nursing. The clinic will serve as a resource for community dentists and social service providers, not only as a referral source but also for dissemination of information and advances in the treatment of individuals with special needs.

The clinic builds on the region's most comprehensive integrated dental practice, where patients receive care from experienced dentists, renowned specialists, advanced graduate residents or dental students overseen by faculty of the state's top-ranked dental school.

In addition to the generous support provided by the namesake donors, a $2 million federal Health Resources and Services Administration grant over five years is funding personnel and operating costs, and provider education. Also, $2.3 million from the Oral Health Improvement Program (OHIP) of the Texas Department of State Health Services is supporting the goal of expanding oral care for those with special health care needs.

The roomy treatment areas allow multiple points of access based on the management needs of the patients, and with ample room for the patients and their families or caregivers, while being private. The Zen Den and a bubble wall offer sensory-regulating features.

Entrances, the reception area and corridors also are designed to allow easy access, and with hallways that include railing and wheelchair bumpers. Patients will have access to a wheelchair tilt if needed, though most patients will be able to receive treatment in their wheelchairs without a tilt.

Compehensive exams will determine what level of sedation is most appropriate for a patient, with five suites specially designed with the latest equipment to deliver full treatment along with conscious sedation. The clinic's location inside the Center for Oral Health Care and Research gives access to additional treatment spaces that allow full sedation if necessary.

"We provide a full range of preventive, routine and comprehensive dental care for all ages and dental needs," said Micaela Gibbs, DDS, MHA, clinical associate professor and chief dental officer of the UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry. "Customized care plans are created based on a patient's unique set of circumstances and tolerance for treatments."

What to expect

The first visit typically will include a comprehensive oral evaluation, X-rays, cleaning, fluoride application, tailored instructions for home oral hygiene care and nutritional guidance, and development of a tentative plan for ongoing care – and will take from one to two hours.

The clinic accepts Medicaid for qualified patients under the age of 21 and select dental insurance. Third-party financing options are available for patients requiring a payment plan.

As the clinic's founding director, Farrell brings more than 30 years of experience providing care for patients with disabilities. Before joining here, she was director of the Special Patient Care Dental Program at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago for 13 years and treated patients with special needs through that program for more than 28 years.

In 2021, Farrell received the Lawrence J. Chasko Distinguished Service Award from the Special Care Dentistry Association.

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