Special needs dentistry: insights from Dr Claudia Lopez Silva
Dr Claudia Lopez Silva is a specialist in and the Discipline Lead of Special Needs Dentistry at UQ. She has over 5 years of experience and is involved in the teaching and clinical supervision of both undergraduate and postgraduate dental students within the School of Dentistry, and on clinical placement within Metro North Oral Health Services (MNOHS).
Here, Claudia reflects on her experience within the field of special needs dentistry and explains why it is important that more dental practitioners pursue it.
Developing expertise in special needs dentistry
Claudia completed a Doctor of Clinical Dentistry degree in Special Needs Dentistry (SND) at The University of Melbourne in 2019. Since then, she has been working at the UQ Herston Oral Health Centre as both a Clinical Lecturer in Special Needs Dentistry at the UQ School of Dentistry, and as a Dental Specialist at MNOHS.
“Both jobs have allowed me not only to work as a clinician, but also to continue to develop my research and teaching skills,” says Claudia.
“I am passionate about teaching and innovation. These passions have driven me to explore innovative ways to teach students, particularly through closer engagement across the undergraduate and postgraduate programs.”
Upon taking the role as Discipline Lead of Special Needs Dentistry in 2021, Claudia has been mentored by Emeritus Professor Laurie Walsh, who has both speciality expertise and experience in special needs dentistry and research supervision.
Breaking down barriers to basic dental care
In Australia, special needs dentistry is defined as the dental specialty that is largely concerned with managing oral health problems of patients with intellectual disability, medical, physical, or psychiatric conditions (Dental Board of Australia 2017). However, there is a shortage of suitably qualified specialists in the workforce.
“I always advocated for my discipline, with the goal being that general dentists are better trained to understand the complexities of managing patients in this cohort, particularly given the barriers experienced by these individuals to accessing basic dental care,” says Claudia.
Benefits for dentists include:
- managing patients with a wide range of social and medical issues
- working collaboratively with other health professionals, including allied health and medical specialists
- practising in different settings including community dental clinics, tertiary hospitals, and residential aged care facilities
- managing the oral care of patients using different nonpharmacological and pharmacological strategies
- gaining experience to work as a clinician and/or academic
- developing clinical management protocols and models of care in conjunction with other stakeholders.
More generally, though, this is just a very rewarding field that brings great job satisfaction.
A growing area of need in the Australian community
As a clinical academic at the School of Dentistry, Claudia advocates for and integrates information relating to special needs dentistry for undergraduate students to be able to understand the complexities of managing patients of this cohort.
“I want to ensure that our UQ students can manage individuals with special needs, because this is a growing area of need in the Australian community,” she says.
“Those individuals at the complex end of the spectrum of disability require referral to specialists in SND for specialised management.”
What skills and qualities are important in caring for patients with special needs?
“Positive attitudes and willingness to manage the oral health of individuals with special needs is a must," says Claudia.
"Soft skills are very valuable attributes for dentists interested in managing patients of this population group.”
“Good clinical skills are also important to ensure good quality dental care is provided to our patients.”
Training the next generation of specialists to contribute to patient care
Through her job, Claudia is not only helping patients, but she also helps students to build their knowledge, skills and confidence to become specialists in special needs dentistry.
“The most rewarding part of what I do is working collaboratively with other health professionals, including allied health and medical specialists, to provide a high level of dental care to patients from diagnosis to treatment and follow-up, and to try to bridge the inherent separation between the dental and medical professions,” she says.
“This is something that is more widely needed because of the increasing complexity of these patients.”
Claudia enjoys not only working as a clinician but also as a researcher and an educator.
“I also enjoy collaborating with other health professionals, including allied health and medical specialists, to improve the oral and medical health of my patients.”
Why you should consider a Doctor of Clinical Dentistry specialising in special needs dentistry
Claudia believes the experience of helping others in this unique field is its own reward and that you'll enjoy this course if you appreciate close multidisciplinary relationships with many other healthcare professionals.
Students can also expect to develop:
- further clinical skills to manage patients with special needs
- research and teaching skills that can open doors to work as an academic
- active clinical links with other medical services necessary for the delivery of patient care.
This program can open opportunities to work in different healthcare environments including hospitals and outpatient dental care facilities. It also assists in developing clinical protocols and models of care in conjunction with other healthcare disciplines.
You can make a difference
With only 25 specialists in special needs dentistry registered in Australia, 4 of them in Queensland, Claudia would like general dentists to consider enrolling into this specialist program.
“There is a lot of work to be done for patients with special needs and I believe this is the time for you to make a difference," she says.
"This is a very rewarding career that allows you to change people’s lives for the best.”