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Audrey Antosik feels fortunate that her daughter, Brittany, 7, has received dental care from a special needs clinic operated by the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine.
In the past, the clinic has been able to meet only a fraction of the demand for care from people with mental retardation or other disabilities. Here and elsewhere, dental services for those people have long been in short supply.
But Brittany and many other patients with those health problems soon will benefit from a new, expanded clinic that will be dedicated today and have a wider focus: educating more dentists and other health professionals to treat patients with special needs.
Brittany, her mother and her father, Dennis, of Lincoln Place, toured the new Center for Patients With Special Needs in Oakland earlier this week along with officials from the Pitt dental school. Located on the third floor of Salk Hall on the University of Pittsburgh campus, it will begin operating later this month.
It is currently accepting new patients -- a welcome change from the former clinic, where openings typically occurred only when patients died or otherwise stopped coming for appointments. When fully phased in, the center will operate five days a week, compared with 11/2 days for the former clinic.
"The real vision behind this is the huge population of individuals that just don't have their problems met," said Dr. Thomas Braun, the dental school's dean.
Dr. Dennis Ranalli, senior associate dean, estimated the center will handle close to 2,500 patient visits a year, compared with nearly 550 at the old clinic.
"I can't even begin to put into words what this is going to mean for people with disabilities and their families," said Nancy Murray, president of The Arc of Greater Pittsburgh. The advocacy group is part of Achieva, which provides support services to people with developmental disabilities and their caregivers.
She noted that other efforts also are under way to try to improve dental care for special needs populations around the state.
Special needs dentistry makes accommodations for people who have trouble receiving conventional dental care because of mental or physical conditions. Some people with mental retardation, for example, may be unable to tolerate dental care without sedation or general anesthesia. Still others, such as those with spinal cord injuries or severe arthritis or obesity, may have trouble getting treatment using standard dental equipment.
The new center will try to meet those needs through six multi-specialty treatment rooms, two of them designated for administering general anesthesia; a recovery area for patients undergoing anesthesia or sedation; and waiting areas that make accommodations for patient privacy. The center and a street entrance are accessible to gurneys or wheelchairs.
The goal of improving care extends beyond the expanded treatment options available at the center, said its director, Dr. Erik Scheifele.
Plans also call for more systematic education of dental students and dental hygiene students, as well as interested dentists already practicing in the community, to help them feel more comfortable treating people with disabilities. The dental school wants to encourage dentists to devote part of their practices to providing care for that population.
Dr. Scheifele also hopes to involve other students in the center, such as those in social services or nursing.
Funding and other support for the center have come from alumni and friends of the dental school, including Abby Sniderman Milstein, Dr. James and Barbara Egnot and Dr. Frank Paletta, and many organizations, Dr. Scheifele said.