Pitt Dental School Names Director of Center For Patients With Special Needs

Issue Date: 
January 14, 2008

Erik Scheifele has set ambitious goals for the new Center for Patients With Special Needs, a pediatric and adult dental center to be opened this spring by Pitt’s School of Dental Medicine.

The school named Scheifele director of the center, which will be based in Salk Hall, near where the dental school currently operates a weekly dental clinic for patients with special needs. The center will serve both children and adults with special needs ranging from physical limitations from birth defects, injury, or disease to intellectual disabilities, neurological and behavioral disorders, and developmental disabilities.

“Patients with special needs have a difficult time finding dental providers who are willing to treat them,” Scheifele said. “In some instances, the clinician may not feel comfortable or properly trained to treat patients with special needs. The new center will allow us to provide comprehensive, quality dental care to these patients while training future and established clinicians in special-care dentistry. This will help to improve access to care for these patients.”

Scheifele is the former director of pediatric dentistry in Temple University’s Kornberg School of Dentistry, as well as a former assistant professor in Pitt’s dental school.

It was Scheifele’s residency in pediatric dentistry that sparked his interest in working with patients with special needs. “I trained at a children’s hospital in Colorado and we were the only children’s hospital in a 500-mile area. We saw a fair amount of special-needs patients,” he said.

“The reason that a lot of dentists don’t see patients with special needs is because they may not have been exposed to them in dental school. … It depends on their degree of exposure. Our goal is to increase that exposure,” he said.

Children and adults with special needs often face significant access-to-care barriers. For example, many such patients are insured through the federal- and state-funded Medicaid program and a number of providers do not accept that insurance. Another barrier is that some dentists may not be willing to treat a patient with a disability because they feel inadequately trained or don’t have the additional staff to help. In addition, simple physical barriers like steps and small examining rooms may make a treatment session impossible.

Scheifele added, however, that there are also a number of dentists in the area who donate their time to treat patients with special needs.

Pitt’s School of Dental Medicine has been treating patients with special needs for more than 40 years. The Department of Pediatric Dentistry has been running a special-needs clinic every Wednesday for about 12 years, Scheifele said. Both children and adults are seen in the clinic. “We have 600 active patients within the clinic, and our intention is to increase that. We have two main goals for this center: to educate and train future clinicians as well as existing clinicians in private practice and to provide quality comprehensive care,” he said.

What are the rewards of working with this special group of patients? Scheifele said that while the actual dental work being done may be small, the effect on patients and their families can be huge. “An adult patient may have had a broken front tooth for years. Just to be able to restore that tooth—and his smile—helps build self-esteem and can make a family so happy. Or a patient may have endured serious tooth pain and to be able to relieve that is such a rewarding thing,” he said.