Partnering to Improve Oral Health for the Special Needs Population

Education, research, patient care and service are four pillars that define the UF College of Dentistry’s missions across Florida and beyond, into each of the communities that Gator Dentists serve. 

Providing oral health care for those in the state’s underserved communities is a passion for faculty, staff, residents and students at UFCD, and volunteering to provide dental care through local and statewide clinics, and in locations throughout the world on educational service trips, is an opportunity many are eager to participate in.  

Serving those vulnerable populations with special needs is no exception.  

It’s an extension of the college’s drive to close the gap in oral health disparities across the state, and it takes a village to collaborate and provide the best possible care for the developmentally disabled population.  

Special needs patient smiling at UF's NCEF Pediatric Dental Center.

Developmentally disabled individuals face major challenges in accessing oral health care, regardless of their socioeconomic status, and suffer disproportionately from oral-related health issues, such as malnutrition, speech problems, and potentially fatal oral infections.  

The lack of access to oral healthcare also impacts these individuals systemically, exacerbating existing conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. 

Creating partnerships between UFCD’s statewide dental centers and organizations with like-minded service initiatives plays a key role in serving those who need oral health attention most.  

Since 2010, the Special Day Foundation has supported delivery of dental care to the special needs population at UFCD’s St. Petersburg Dental Center.  

According to the Special Day Foundation, over 500,000 Florida residents, including adults and children, are estimated to have developmental disabilities such as intellectual disability, cerebral palsy, autism, spina bifida or Prader-Willi syndrome, with limited funding available to provide outside recreational and dental care.  

Through the philanthropy of Special Day Foundation, children and adults with special needs are exposed to dental services that improve oral healthcare and socialization opportunities through outdoor recreation that helps to increase self-esteem and enrich the quality of their day-to-day lives. To date, funding has enabled almost 700 individuals to receive necessary dental treatment they otherwise could not have obtained.  

In 2020, the program expanded to include the college’s Hialeah Dental Center. The scope of care in both St. Petersburg and Hialeah includes functional comprehensive dental treatment like fillings, cleanings, oral surgery and tooth replacement, delivered in an ambulatory setting tailored specifically to the individual’s health and emotional needs by UFCD’s attending and resident dentists.  

In Naples at the college’s NCEF Pediatric Dental Center, partnerships with the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation and Henry Schein provide necessary support and equipment for a new Special Needs Oral Health Promotion Center that will address the special needs population in Southwest Florida to better serve, raise awareness, provide community dentistry training and increase the College of Dentistry outreach to those with special needs in the region.  

The value of the college’s partnership with the Special Day Foundation and gifts from the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation and Henry Schein is twofold: vulnerable individuals have a pathway to the delivery of necessary care, and each year a new class of College of Dentistry residents gains enhanced training to ensure access for a deserving special needs group for years to come. 

The generosity and support for those with special needs at UFCD’s dental centers in Hialeah, Naples and St. Petersburg is transformational, and helps make a difference in the lives, and health, of special patients every day.