Due to the unique needs of special needs patients, dentists are required to be equipped with the specialised skillsets to cater to the dental care needs of this group. In 2008, when Ministry of Health (MOH) doled out scholarships to encourage dentists to pursue special needs dentistry, it indicated that there was recognition to the small number of professionals trained in this field.

There was also awareness that special needs dentistry, such as geriatrics, was not a popular route for many. This article looks into the development of special needs dentistry in Singapore beginning with efforts by the health ministry to train more dentists in this area.

1. Scholarship for postgraduate training in geriatric and special-needs dentistry

In 2008, Ministry of Health (MOH) started a fully-sponsored scholarship for postgraduate training in geriatric and special-needs dentistry. The aim of this programme was to attract more dentists into less popular fields. When the scholarship programme was launched in 2008, there were only 12 out of 257 dentists, who specialised in infant and adolescent patients and children with special healthcare needs.

During the first year, the programme offered nine scholarships for geriatric and special needs dentistry at the estimated cost of $5 million. Eight years later, six spots had been taken while four of the recipients had graduated and started their practice.

One of them is Dr Tay Chong Meng. Dr Tay had received his postgraduate degree in special-needs dentistry from the University of Melbourne in 2012. He has since returned to Singapore and now practises at NUH. Today, MOH continues to offer scholarships for a three-year postgraduate programme in Special Needs Dentistry.

2. National Dental Centre Singapore (NCDS) inaugural public forum for parents of special needs children

In December 2014, another milestone was achieved when NCDS, for the first time, hosted a public forum for around 70 parents of special needs children. This forum was insightful as it revealed some of the challenges faced by parents with children of special needs.

For instance, through the session, NCDS discovered that four in 10 parents had never taken their child to visit the dentist: Most of the parents feared that their child would not cooperate during their dental sessions while almost half of the parents recounted that their child had been rejected by dentists.

As mentioned by paediatric dentist, Terry Teo of The Dental Studio “Very often, they (special needs patients) have been turned away by other dentists”. Additionally, some parents shared that they do not know which dental clinic to bring their child to. This finding is understandable in light of the fact that not many dentists in Singapore are trained to deal with special needs patients.

Dr Teo also mentioned that most of the special needs children would visit him on average four years later than other children, whose first visit to him would be at about the age of three to five. The forum revealed that the move to train and encourage dentists in the field of special needs dentistry is a significant step in addressing special healthcare needs in Singapore.

3. Geriatric and Special Needs Dentistry Clinic and upcoming Centre for Oral Health

A significant and visible milestone was again achieved with the completion and set-up of a Geriatric and Special Needs Dentistry Clinic in September 2015. The clinic offers a full range of oral health services customised for patients with complex medical needs.

Significantly, the clinic would also serve as a training ground for the next generation of oral health professionals who are specialising in this field. A second geriatric and special needs dentistry clinic is also being planned at the upcoming Centre for Oral Health at the National University Health System.

This centre is expected to open for service in 2019. The establishment of these two clinics would provide the much-needed infrastructure to cater to the dental healthcare of special needs patients in Singapore.

4. Consideration to make Special Needs Dentistry a recognised specialty

Soon after the opening of the Geriatric and Special Needs Dentistry, there were also reports that the Dental Specialists Accreditation Board is looking into whether special needs dentistry should be made into a recognised specialty.

At the moment, there are only seven recognised specialisations, including orthodontics and paediatric dentistry. Additionally, Singapore does not offer a postgraduate dental course that specialises in special needs.

The consideration to make special needs dentistry a recognised field is another positive step to making this field become more creditable. In light of the progress made since 2008, we can hope for more positive developments in the area of special needs dentistry both for dental care professional and special needs patients. MIMS

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