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Special needs dentist

Lydia's journey to becoming a special needs dentist

UQ people
Published 26 Jul, 2022  ·  6-minute read

Dr Lydia See is in her second year of the Doctor of Clinical Dentistry program, specialising in special needs dentistry. She relocated from Perth to Brisbane for her study during the height of travel restrictions of the pandemic.

Here, Lydia shares why she is so passionate about her specialty and provides advice to others who may be considering postgraduate dental study at UQ.

What was it like to relocate for this program?

The process was rather difficult due to the nature of the COVID pandemic and restrictions on travelling. I was not able to come to Brisbane and view apartments and had to rely on friends to undertake rental review, etc. To move away from my family base in Perth has also been difficult, and this was further compounded by the travel restrictions of 2021.

"I would recommend anyone relocating to consider finding good social support networks as early as possible so that you have something to look forward to away from studying."

Why did you choose UQ for this program?

The city of Brisbane is one that I’ve been familiar with, having come to the city on annual volunteering trips. I have a community here that I can reach out to for the much-needed moral support required when going through intense specialty training program such as this.

I was also attracted to the diversity of opportunities available in UQ’s Doctor of Clinical Dentistry program – particularly due to the variety of clinics being available, as well as supervisors from a range of backgrounds and experiences.

The opportunity to undertake research with supervisors who have national and international experiences and publications was also a factor of consideration.

Why did you choose special needs dentistry as your primary field of study?

I became interested in special needs dentistry in fourth-year dental school, where we had a guest lecturer who was one of the few dentists in Perth undertaking mobile dentistry in nursing homes. He gave us an insight into the oral health conditions and the severity of disease that were facing nursing home residents.

Secondly, with my participation in volunteering and helping individuals with disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds, it gave me exposure to the myriad of issues facing these populations. Since then, I have gravitated towards treating similar populations and have enjoyed delivering care to the special needs population and teaching others to be passionate about this unique group of people.

Dr Lydia See quote

Special needs dentistry truly allows you to operate in a niche area where the worlds of medicine, dentistry and advocacy meet. This field has a lot of challenges but equally a lot of rewarding experiences.

Dr Lydia See
Doctor of Clinical Dentistry

What have you been enjoying most about the program?

The support all my supervisors have provided me so far in my training. They are very approachable and knowledgeable within the specialty, as well as with life and academic experiences. The teamwork within our special needs dentistry team at UQ has been great.

"I have also enjoyed being challenged in finding new and different perspectives of treatment planning and managing special needs patients. Additionally, I have found my supervisor team receptive of new ideas and trying out new and innovative ways of doing things."

What are 3 things people do not know about special needs dentistry, but should?

  1. Our specialty does not only deal with disabilities that are physical or intellectual in nature. It involves also the medically complex and those with complex psychiatric and social circumstances.
  2. Not everything is always about treating patients under general anaesthesia. Sometimes it is a case of rapport building, patience and time.
  3. We are not just dental surgeons treating teeth. We manage the patient in a holistic manner, considering their medical and psychosocial circumstances in the context of dentistry.

How do you feel your studies have best prepared you for your career or further study?

The program trains us to be well-rounded clinicians. We are exposed to a wide range of special needs patients and treatment settings. So far, the clinics we are involved in are:

  • Metro North Oral Health Centre Special Needs Dentistry clinics (1st and 2nd year)
  • IV sedation (2nd year)
  • general anaesthetics (2nd year)
  • domiciliary service to STARs
  • RBWH hospital dentistry (1st year)
  • Mental Health Screening Clinic (1st year).

Additionally, the placements available will further give that extra dimension in understanding the various oral health care systems in Australia. The research exposure and having support from a very experienced supervisory research team with wide international and national experience and publications has also enabled me to gain an insight into the research processes that are involved, especially in the context of the special needs population. This has opened my eyes to potential avenues of research playing a big role in helping advocate for the oral healthcare needs of this population.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to study a Doctor of Clinical Dentistry?

  • Special needs dentistry is a branch of dentistry that truly allows you to operate in a niche area where the worlds of medicine, dentistry and advocacy meet. This field has a lot of challenges but equally a lot of rewarding experiences. It is a profession that requires compassion and empathy, where you are acting more as a role of a dental physician rather than a dental surgeon. If any of this resonates with you, please consider enrolling into this specialty program.
  • For entering special needs dentistry, I would get a wide exposure of general dentistry first, as it will help a lot when you’re confident in your dentistry.
  • The course can get quite busy and intense and will require quite a bit of personal commitment. Make sure you find your passion point in whichever specialty you choose to do.

What is the most rewarding part of what you do?

The most rewarding part of being in the field of special needs dentistry is seeing how much of an impact we have as a clinician and educator to our patient population and our peers. There is always a sense of achievement and fulfilment that words cannot adequately describe when we see a patient who previously could not sit in a dental chair be able to sit in said chair and accept a routine exam and clean. Or when a patient overcomes personal adversities to be able to accept having their oral health treated and improving their quality of life as a result.

To be a part of that journey with a patient and know that you’re just one of the many people in their lives that have contributed to their recovery journey of whatever they’re experiencing medically, psychologically or socially... To be able to then educate and share this with my fellow dental colleagues, so that they become motivated and inspired to treat this special population, is a rewarding experience.

"Through my work, I hope to motivate and encourage our fellow dental colleagues to treat our special needs population as well as continue to provide the much-needed clinical dental care, and hopefully drive a change to help provide increased and improved oral health care access to this population."

Why do you think that gaining knowledge and practice in special needs dentistry is beneficial for dentists?

Understanding the patient’s circumstances (medical history, psychosocial, behavioural) will inform all aspects of dental management. Communicating with special needs patients allows you to develop a diversity of styles, and this skill becomes very beneficial for dentists when interacting with their patients. The knowledge and skills necessary in special needs dentistry are applicable across all areas of dentistry.

What do you want to do once you finish the program?

I hope to be out there continuing to develop new and innovative ways of setting up special needs dentistry clinics / programs and see our profession have more integrative approaches with medical and allied health teams for the benefits of our special needs population. With advances in medical treatments, our special needs patients are living longer and increasing improvements in quality of life. Therefore, I would also like to see the upskilling of our dental profession to cope with the demands of this. I hope to play an integral part in the development of continuing education programs to allow for this to occur.

Personally, I would like to be travelling the world, going on volunteering trips and continuing to draw inspiration from different communities around the world.

Learn more about UQ's Doctor of Clinical Dentistry

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