Purpose: Unmet oral health needs affect the quality of life of individuals, especially if they are already at a disadvantage like children with special health care needs. Strategies to mitigate these disparities in India’s diverse healthcare settings have hitherto been largely ineffective. This study was aimed to assess the utilisation and barriers to the use of dental health services among children with special health care needs, against the background of a coordinated healthcare programme implemented in Nitte (Deemed to be University), Mangalore, India.
Method: The study was conducted over a 6-month period, from September 2018 to February 2019. A mixed-methods design was concurrently employed for data collection. Utilisation of dental services was assessed quantitatively, and the barriers to dental services utilisation were assessed qualitatively through caregiver interviews, with a sequential data integration strategy.
Results: The quantitative data revealed gross underutilisation of dental resources by children (only 16% availed some form of dental treatment), and the prevalence of avoidance behaviour (63% showed reluctance and did not turn up for appointments). Restorative needs formed the highest unmet dental component among the children (67% required secondary dental care). In-depth interviews with the children’s caregivers revealed that the presence of cognitive barriers could have a direct effect on the time and quality of dental care delivered to their children.
Conclusion: Cognitive barriers among caregivers appear to have a profound impact on the underutilisation of dental services in their children with special healthcare needs. These barriers may be addressed within the integrated healthcare programme and the dental curricula through provisions for continued individual and community dental education, and motivational efforts that simultaneously target the caregivers and their children with special healthcare needs.