Serving the Florida Special Needs Population

The UF College of Dentistry vision: to be a global leader in education, research, patient care and service. UFCD’s impact on oral health care extends beyond our college and dental centers in Gainesville. Through the UF Statewide Network for Community Oral Health, comprised of UF dental centers and partnership clinics, the college’s providers treat patients from all 67 Florida counties each year. Its reputation of excellence in the United States and internationally, especially through its world-renowned research enterprise that ranks No. 6 among all U.S. dental schools in National Institutes of Health funding, is strongly established.

Special Day and Special Needs Oral Health Promotion Center
Sensory Room in the Special Needs Oral Health Promotion Center

As Florida’s land-grant university, serving the oral health care needs of our state is a priority that is embedded into our institution. Providing dental care for those underserved communities has always been a point of pride for UFCD faculty, staff, residents, students, alumni and friends, who are always eager to take advantage of volunteer opportunities to serve through many local and statewide dental centers and community events that provide free or reduced-free oral health care to those uninsured and underserved.

But for over a decade, the college has also touched another vulnerable population – patients with special needs – with leading-edge advancements in several UF-owned dental centers. Thanks in part to the generous support of our partners like the Naples Children and Education Foundation, Special Day Foundation, the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, the B. Thomas Golisano Foundation and Henry Schein Cares, our faculty, staff and residents in St. Petersburg, Naples and Hialeah are making a transformational difference in the lives and health of a population of patients that require special accommodations during delivery of oral health care.

Developmentally disabled individuals face major challenges in accessing oral health care, regardless of their socioeconomic status, and suffer disproportionately from oral health issues, such as malnutrition, speech problems, and potentially fatal oral infections. The lack of access to oral healthcare impacts these individuals systemically, exacerbating existing conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Since 2010 the Special Day Foundation has supported and facilitated the delivery of dental care to the special-needs population at the UF Health St. Petersburg Dental Center and, in 2020, the program expanded to include the college’s UF Health Hialeah Dental Center and the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center. The scope of care includes functional comprehensive dental treatments like fillings, cleanings, oral surgery and tooth replacement, all delivered in an ambulatory setting tailored specifically to the patient’s health and emotional needs by UFCD’s attending and resident dentists. 

According to the Special Day Foundation, over half-a-million 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.

Special Day and Special Needs Oral Health Promotion Center
Dr. Skvor exercising his excellent interpersonal skills, forming the foundational skills of rapport and a positive patient-dentist relationship that leads to greater patient satisfaction.

In Naples at the college’s NCEF Pediatric Dental Center, the development of a new Special Needs Oral Health Promotion Center has been critical in addressing the needs of patients with special needs in Collier County and, more broadly, Southwest Florida. Gifts from the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation and Henry Schein helped provide support and equipment for the center, while the Golisano Foundation has committed its support for increased access to comprehensive oral health care for children with autism spectrum disorders.

For example, the sensory room in the Special Needs Oral Health Promotion Center provides a safe space for patients to be adequately entertained and comfortable in an environment tailored to their needs as UF dentists and pediatric dental residents work to build rapport and a positive patient-dentist relationship, setting the foundation for a comfortable experience and smooth transition to the dental chair. Sometimes that means the first treatment step is an oral exam in the sensory room while sitting at a table together and playing with Play-doh and Legos.

Watch how the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center is impacting patients at the 2:00 mark, highlighting Jesse’s story with the Special Needs Oral Health Promotion Center.

Creating the partnerships between UFCD’s dental centers and organizations with like-minded service initiatives, like the NCEF, paired with generous gifts from alumni and friends of the college, is transformational and two-fold: vulnerable individuals have a pathway to the delivery of necessary care, and each year a new class of College of Dentistry residents at each UFCD dental center gains enhanced training to ensure access for a deserving special needs group for years to come.

It’s an extension of the college’s drive to close the gap in oral health disparities across the state and make a difference in the lives, and health, of special patients every day through awareness, outreach and service.

Jesse’s Story

Jesse's story NCEF
Jesse in the Sensory Room within the new Special Needs Oral Health Promotion Center.

Jesse is an 11-year-old patient with Down Syndrome. His first visit to the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center was in November 2019, and he was initially very frightened; Jessie’s mom said bringing him to the dentist was terrifying. He then had dental treatment done under general anesthesia in December 2020 at Golisano Children’s Hospital in the operating room, and under IV sedation at the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center in January 2022. He no longer has any complaints with his oral health.

Since then, Jesse has had regular dental evaluations and cleanings every three months at the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center. In January 2022, he was enrolled in the Special Day Foundation program and continues coming for his regular checkups.

Jesse has been visiting the Special Needs Oral Health Promotion Center since it was opened in October 2022, and his mom appreciates the love and care he has received at the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center; she knows that, between the Special Day Foundation and the pediatric dental center, he will always have the care he needs, and that the level of care he receives would not be possible anywhere else.

Jesse now feels so comfortable that UFCD’s providers handle his dental procedures with much more ease. He has accomplished a lot of improvements behaviorally in the dental environment, and he is always happy to come to the dentist and feels at home at the NCEF Pediatric Dental Center. Jesse likes to sing and dance for all the staff, and is now a confident dental patient thanks to the establishment of the sensory operatory.