Special needs dental patients need access to specialized clinic says advocate

Vancouver Coastal Health says the closure of the VGH Dental Clinic at the Diamond Health Centre will last three to five weeks.

VCH says closure will last 3-5 weeks, and no scheduled OR procedures will be cancelled

Joan Rush, director of the Help! Teeth Hurt Dental Clinic Project, says the VGH Dental Clinic is the only place in B.C. where adult patients with developmental delays can get consultations for general anaesthetic dental treatments in a hospital operating room. (iStock)

The temporary closure of the VGH Dental Clinic at Diamond Health Centre is making a bad situation worse when it comes to dentistry for adults with developmental disabilities, says a lawyer and advocate for special needs patients.

Joan Rush, the director of the Help! Teeth Hurt Dental Clinic Project, says the VGH Dental Clinic is the only place in B.C. where adult patients with developmental disabilities can get consultations for general anaesthetic dental treatments in a hospital operating room, which many require — including her son, Graeme.

"Many of these patients can't really deal with any kind of work in their mouths, even examinations unless they're sedated, and my son would be like that," Rush told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn.

"He's gone there. They've sort of gazed at his mouth a bit … and tried to guess what his needs might be, and sometimes they've guessed wrong, which has happened a couple of times."

She says this guesswork is required because anaesthesiologists are often unavailable to put Graeme under for a proper X-ray.

In one case, his pain was misdiagnosed as discomfort from a recent root canal — when in fact he had an infection in his jawbone and needed a tooth extracted.

VCH says changes will lead to more timely access

Vancouver Coastal Health says the closure is because of a change to the delivery model at the clinic, one that will give patients better access to care.

Part of the change is bringing in an expert on triaging dental patients with special needs, spokeswoman Anne Marie D'Angelo said.

"We are experts in hospital care and medical care, but we don't have that expertise in triaging dental cases, especially ones of this nature," she said. "We've decided to put this over to a contracted provider to provide the same care to the same patients, hopefully in a more timely manner."

D'Angelo says the closure will last three to five weeks, during which time new appointments will not be taken — although previously scheduled operating room procedures will go ahead as planned during that time.

Joan Rush with her son Graeme. (Joan Rush)

But Rush questions the need for the closure at all.

"If this is an administrative change, why would they close access?" she asked.

"Would people in British Columbia be comfortable to think that, for example, the cancer agency, stopped accepting appointments for diagnosis or treatment because it wanted to upgrade its internal systems?"

Rush says the problems of getting adults with developmental disabilities dental care go beyond this closure, and until more resources, human and financial, are made available, problems will persist.

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast