A new study released today by the Williams Institute found that 5% of dental offices in Los Angeles County have a blanket policy of refusing dental services to People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). An additional 5% of dental providers would treat PLWHA differently than other patients in ways that could potentially violate anti-discrimination laws.
“30 years into the epidemic, HIV-positive patients continue to face discrimination when accessing dental care,” said study co-author Brad Sears, Roberta A. Conroy Scholar of Law and Executive Director of the Williams Institute. “While it is definitely encouraging that 90% of dentists in Los Angeles County do treat HIV-positive patients, it is likely that the rate of discrimination is higher in other parts of the country.”
The study used trained “testers,” researchers who called dental offices posing as potential new HIV-positive patients, to measure the level of HIV-discrimination. In total, 612 dental offices in Los Angeles County were contacted in 2007 and 2008.
The most common reasons that the dentists gave for refusing to accept HIV-positive patient were that the dental office was not equipped to treat HIV-positive patients and that extra infection control precautions would be required.
“Dentists can treat HIV-positive patients safely and effectively,” said study co-author Fariba S. Younai, Professor of Clinical Sciences & Vice Chair, Division of Oral Biology and Medicine, UCLA School of Dentistry. “The same standard infection control precautions should be used with all patients and every patient should be treated as if they had a blood borne disease. Thus, every dental office should be equipped to treat HIV-positive patients.”
Despite the overall lower rate of discrimination, the study found that levels of discrimination were twice as high for PLWHA who had Denti-Cal as opposed to private dental insurance. In addition, dentists who were older and who did not go to dental school in the United States were more likely to provide a discriminatory response.
“The findings indicate that training and education efforts over the past 20 years have had a positive effect. Many of the dental clinics tested responded with affirmations such as, ‘Of course we would accept you, we do not discriminate here.’ However, the data also suggest the need for more targeted education efforts to ensure equal access to dental services for all PLWHA,” says study co-author Tom Donohoe, Associate Professor of Family Medicine at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and Director, UCLA/Pacific AIDS Education and Training Center.