Addressing barriers and gaps in oral health care – moving from access limitations to health equity for people living with disabilities

By: Dr. Sharat Pani



The CIHR recently awarded a 5-year grant to the Network for Canadian Oral Health Research (NCOHR).  The NCOHR was originally established in 2012 to serve as a platform where researchers and research teams from the 10 dental schools in Canada could come together to advance oral health research.

The lack of access to oral health care among socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals, individuals with disabilities and First Nation populations in Canada have been well-documented. As there is little research on the specific challenges to access of oral health care that each group faces, NCOHR has launched 7 Working Groups (Aging and Well-being, Pediatrics and Growing Healthy, Indigenous Peoples Health, Oral Cancer, Orofacial Pain, Disability and Oral Health, and the CADR-NCOHR Trainee Development). We have opened a grant competition to fund research into the barriers and gaps in oral health care, from access limitations to health equity.  Here we examine the lack of access to oral health care for people living with disabilities and how solutions may be found through collaborative research.


Researching Access to Oral Health Care for Individuals with Disability

The 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability reported that 22.7% of individuals over the age of 15 experienced disability in some form. Previous disability surveys have not looked at access to oral healthcare, levels of oral disease, or oromotor function (ability to speak, chew or swallow) among people living with disability. The current disability survey (2022) is in progress and the report is expected by the end of 2023 and will for the first time include data on accessibility barriers faced by Canadians with disability. However, there is still much work to be done to collect and analyze data on access to oral healthcare for these individuals.

The Disability and Oral Health working group of NCOHR was established in 2022 to promote research on the oral healthcare needs of individuals with special healthcare needs. The group has established collaborations with the Canadian Society of Disability and Oral Health and the International Association for Disability and Oral Health.

There are two components to accessible oral health care the willingness of dental care providers to provide care for persons with disabilities and their ability to do so. Access to oral health care for individuals with disabilities requires oral health professionals who are willing to treat them. However, it also requires individuals who have the required training to provide care within dental offices, and more importantly, effectively triage those cases that need to be seen in the hospital. With this in mind, the group has begun work on research projects that look at how Special Care Dentistry is taught among the dentistry and dental hygiene programs in Canada.

The Canadian Dental Association and the Canadian Society for Disability and Oral Health in 2019 developed a case complexity tool that aimed to provide oral healthcare providers an effective tool to triage patients with disabilities (Fig 1.). It has been estimated that in countries that have established special care dentistry referral pathways, fewer than 10% of patients living with disabilities need to be seen in a hospital setting. A validated tool for the triage of patients with disabilities could help oral health care professionals in Canada see more patients living with disabilities in their offices and effectively triage those individuals that need to be seen in hospitals. Validation of this tool is a priority for the working group, and it is hoped that the use of an effective tool can facilitate access to dental care for individuals with disability.

(Source: Canadian Dental Association: accessible online at:


The path forward

The 2022 WHO, Global Oral Health Report recognizes persons living with disabilities as a significant cause of oral health care inequality. The renewal of the NCOHR grant and the recognition of “Addressing barriers and gaps in oral health care” as an area of priority for collaborative research provides a much-needed launch pad for research into the oral healthcare needs of persons living with disability in Canada. It is hoped that collaborative research into the oral healthcare needs of persons living with disabilities can help address the causes, and provide potential solutions to the oral health care inequalities experiences faced by these individuals.


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