DECOD clinic offers treatment for those with developmental or acquired disabilities.

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 Most dental care providers have minimal training in special care dentistry, often leaving them unable to address patients’ behavioral and physical needs. Additionally, many patients with special needs are afraid of dental procedures, and may have had past treatment while under general anesthesia. This means their fears are never assuaged, and appointments can remain challenging for both patient and dental care provider.

Dr. Keturah Lowe is a second-year general practice resident in the UW School of Dentistry’s Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, focusing on special care dentistry. Most of the week, she can be found at the DECOD clinic, treating patients with developmental disabilities and occasionally working with dental students.

DECOD stands for Dental Education in the Care of Persons with Disabilities, and the clinic is part of the UW School of Dentistry. The DECOD clinic, which is supported in part by private donations, provides care to patients with developmental or acquired disabilities, including people with autism, multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy, meaning they often need care beyond what a typical dental office provides.

The DECOD clinic, supported in part by private donations, provides care to patients with developmental or acquired disabilities, including people with autism, multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy. (Provided by the University of Washington)

“At my last program, most of my patients with special needs received dental treatment in an operating room under general anesthesia,” says Lowe. “When I work with UW students, I like to make them aware that not every dental school has a program like this; they’re very fortunate.” So, too, are the patients they serve.

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Lowe’s training in this field has taught her to expect the unexpected when caring for her patients. “Each patient is an individual with individual needs,” she says. “And sometimes those needs change moment by moment.”

Some patients start out with a series of appointments to get used to the clinic, slowly building up to receiving treatment. Others feel more at ease if an assistant holds their hand, or if they can take breaks. And many benefit from the positive encouragement given throughout procedures.

Patients at the DECOD clinic look forward to their dental appointments. They know that when they arrive, the front desk assistant will greet them with a warm smile. And when it’s time for their appointment, the dentist will talk through each step of the cleaning – when they’re not discussing the Seahawks or the latest movies.

Despite a growing demand, DECOD is one of only a few special care dental clinics in Washington state. Dr. Kimberly Espinoza, director of DECOD, has heard story after story of patients being turned away by dentists who weren’t equipped to treat them. “Families were so frustrated,” she says. “Some tried several different clinics before they found us.”

“A good percentage of dentists haven’t seen a patient with an intellectual or developmental disability while they were in dental school,” says Espinoza. “Then in your practice, you might come in with existing assumptions about what is needed to treat someone with autism, for example. It really puts those students at a disadvantage when they’re going out into practice.”

As each successive class graduates from the School of Dentistry and more residents like Lowe receive specialized training, the pool of oral health care providers who can treat special-needs patients grows.

Lowe hopes that more students will be inspired to include special care dentistry in their future practice, something she sees not as just an additional skill, but a duty. “I want to be able to treat whoever walks in the door,” she says. “As a dentist, it’s my responsibility – and my honor – to treat all patients.”

Learn more about DECOD and the UW School of Dentistry.