Assessing dental education and practices regarding patients with special needs: a pilot study proposal

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2.0 Study Proposal

As more dentists graduate after the nationwide dental school curriculum change in 2005 to focus more on patients with special health care needs, it is important to revisit the situation to see if increased special needs education in dental school translate to being more willing to treat special needs children after graduation from dental school. In order to understand the relationship between curriculum and post-graduate behavior towards the special needs population, this study is designed to describe the “special needs” didactic and clinical curriculum of a group of dental students from the Classes of 2014 and 2015 and then track their current clinical practices. A pilot program utilizing 5 dental schools and targeting 250 recent dental school graduates will be the starting off point prior to a more comprehensive study evaluating all dental schools.


To evaluate dental education, two separate groups of individuals will need to be surveyed: curriculum committees at dental schools and recent graduates of dental schools.

2.1.1Dental Schools

To identify dental schools, researchers will use a selection of 5 schools from the 65 current accredited dental schools in the United States with the goal to have a variety of educational experiences in special needs dentistry. To select the dental schools, data from the Health Policy Institute of the American Dental Association is utilized. The Survey of Dental Education Series provides annual surveys to all predoctoral dental education programs in the United States and reports on academic programs, enrollment, graduates, tuition, admission, finances, and curriculum. Unlike the other aspects of the survey, the curriculum report is only published periodically, with the last report published occurring in 2011.The curriculum report summarizes instruction to students in biomedical sciences, dental/clinical sciences, and behavioral, social, information and research sciences. One aspect of the curriculum report looks at the number of didactic, laboratory, school-based, and community-based hours dental schools spend instructing about Geriatric/Special Needs patients (Appendix A). Although the relevant information is combined with geriatric instruction in the data, this will provide the sample of 5 dental schools for the project.

To select the five dental schools for the pilot program, a variety of schools with low, medium, and high levels of special needs experiences were chosen. Because type of education is an important factor in the study, schools were also chosen for a variety of clinical versus didactic experiences. The schools chosen for the pilot program are:

Table 1. Dental School Participans
























This random sample provides a variety of levels of geriatric/special needs instruction (ranging from 7 to 96 hours) as well as a variety of completely didactic programs or a mix of didactic and clinical experiences.

After the dental schools are identified, curriculum directors will be contacted via email or a phone call. After consent is obtained by agreeing to participate in the pilot program, curriculum directors will be asked to complete the survey about special needs curriculum (Appendix B).The survey aims to evaluate what type of instructions students receive, how much instruction, and what type of clinic in which students treat special needs patients. The survey will also ask about education about treating children with special needs, although not all schools currently teach that topic.

2.1.2Recent Graduates

To identify recent graduates, alumni programs at the 5 dental schools selected will be used. Alumni groups send regular correspondence either via email or US mail. For each school, the past two years of graduates (2014 and 2015) will be selected. The two year time period was chosen to be able to evaluate enough graduates for the pilot program and to see if the study is on the right track to expand. The study may need to be expanded to look at graduating classes from earlier years if it is discovered that two years is not enough to establish and maintain a behavior by new graduates. By combining the survey with regular mailings, alumni will be able to consent for the study by signing the survey and mailing it back to study coordinators in a pre-stamped envelope. No signed informed consent form will be required because the dentists who respond will do so anonymously and will receive an explanation of the purpose of the research and their rights as research subjects in the mailing. The survey aims to evaluate recent graduates’ attitudes regarding treatment of special needs patients after graduation as well as their behaviors. The survey also collects demographic data, practice information, and how many special needs patients the dentist sees on a regular basis (Appendix C). While it would obviously be ideal to have 100% participation from alumni, this study aims to have a sample of 50 alumni from each of the dental schools selected.
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