Students of dental sciences in Australia lack education about deaf patients

deaf dental patients
Photo: Elnur 123rf

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 20 per cent of the world’s population is affected by some form of hearing loss. As one in six people in Australia are also affected to some degree, Australian researchers investigated the extent to which students in dental programs felt prepared to connect with and provide care to the deaf population of Australia. 

Their findings—published in the Journal of Dental Sciences—revealed a distinct lack of training that could potentially impact the dental service deaf patients receive.

The team at the University of Western Australia noted disparities in the oral health education deaf individuals receive because of a lack of Deaf-oriented resources and the dearth of Deaf cultural training among dental practitioners. They asserted that systemic issues can be better observed and addressed by viewing deaf individuals as part of a cultural community instead of as a disabled group, as is the case with other minority groups. 

The researchers also noted a study that emphasises that education from a cultural perspective can improve patient care, addressing consent-based medico-legal issues and errors in diagnosis and medication prescription, for example.

The current study involved surveying more than 250 students in dentistry, oral health therapy and dental hygiene from 13 institutions in Australia about their previous experience with individuals who were deaf or hard of hearing and their participation in an Australian Sign Language (Auslan) course. 

Of the responding students, 55.7 per cent indicated that they had prior exposure to hard-of-hearing or deaf individuals, 64.9 per cent said that they were aware of the existence of Deaf culture and 90.8 per cent had never participated in an Auslan course. 

Interestingly, those who had taken an Auslan course reported more confidence in communicating with patients about needed behavioural changes and in communicating with challenging patients. They were also more knowledgeable about Deaf culture.

The students were also asked an open-ended question regarding what they believed are possible challenges that deaf individuals may face during a dental appointment. 

In naming these difficulties, the respondents tended to implicitly assign responsibility for addressing these to the deaf patient and Deaf community, the clinician and overall dental community, or the interpreter and interpreting organisation. Those who had experience with Auslan assigned responsibility more often to the dental clinician than those without such experience, who placed responsibility on the deaf patient.

To achieve a proper standard of care for deaf and hard-of-hearing patients, the researchers emphasised that healthcare providers should consider cultural differences and any obstacles to offering equitable service for those with disabilities. The authors also suggested designing clinics to facilitate treatment of deaf people, providing Auslan training and training in Deaf cultural awareness, ensuring better oral health education in schools with deaf students, designing tailored resources for the Deaf community and providing professional development courses for interpreters.

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