Social Work and Dentistry

Valerie Fatta and Julie Rockmaker | 02.22.2013

Social Work and Dentistry


Many older adults care about their oral health, but finding dental care can be hard.  Older adults may not be able to get care because they can’t afford it. Or they can’t get to the dental office.  Another reason they don’t go to the dentist is that they have other health problems that keep them from getting dental care. Social workers can lessen these barriers by giving older adults the resources, information and tools to make decisions.  By working with social workers patients can learn more about their care, and have more control over oral health decisions.

Social workers help provide access to dental care for hard to reach populations. Social workers have relationships, connections and form partnerships with community agencies.  These relationships provide a network of support and information for older adults and their caregivers. 

Social workers have worked with medical professionals since the early 1900s.  As part of the medical team, social workers help with care after the medical appointment is over.   Social workers work in hospitals, nursing homes, and health clinics.  Social workers also work in some dental schools.

For example, the University at Buffalo (UB) School of Dental Medicine created a social work program called the Counseling Advocacy Referral Education and Service (CARES) Program. It serves over 2,800 people, including older adults, during the past 11 years.  The CARES Program is a collaboration between the UB School of Dentistry and the UB School of Social Work.  It serves as an extension of care for patients to receive their dental treatment at UB’s School of Dental Medicine.  The social workers link patients with transportation, senior housing, and insurances such as Medicaid.  Four out of five patients completed treatment after working with one of the social workers through the CARES Program.

Social workers help families who have loved one in nursing homes.  The social worker works with the nursing home and the family members of the loved one to make sure that the patient is getting the best care.  This relationship between the family, the nursing home and the patient is extremely important.

Some patients shared that stressful or traumatic past events, both in the dental chair and out, caused them to feel uncomfortable or overly anxious while receiving dental treatment.  As a result, the UB School of Social Work integrates a trauma-informed and human rights perspective into its curriculum.  It aims to teach students how to provide trauma-informed service that is sensitive to the needs of patients.  More information on trauma informed care can be found at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. The social workers of the CARES Program utilize the principles of trauma-informed care to obtain a deep understanding of the patients concerns, and to work collaboratively with the patient to find solutions to the anxiety they feel while at the dentist.

Programs, such as the CARES Program, promote good oral health in additional to good overall health and wellbeing.