Strategies for Successful Medical and Dental Office Visits

Written by: Deborah A. Chapin & Robin Worobey with the New York State Developmental Disabilities Planning Council (DDPC)

Most caregivers have experienced some level of stress when making or attending a doctor/dentist visit with a child with a disability. Individuals with disabilities also have a difficult time at the doctor’s and dentist’s office. There are ways to make this process easier as the New York State Developmental Disabilities Planning Council (DDPC) recently found out from a statewide electronic survey. The DDPC is a state agency that explores new ways to promote and support initiatives for New Yorkers with developmental disabilities and their families. Individuals and caregivers suggested that the DDPC carry out this survey and disseminate the information gained to others to make their office visits less nerve-racking.

The DDPC conducted the survey of individuals with disabilities, parents, grandparents, adoptive parents, foster parents, residential caregivers, and other caregivers in November of 2007 to determine the supports they need and strategies they use to make a successful doctor/dentist visit. Approximately 230 individuals and caregivers from across New York State responded, providing some interesting and innovative ideas about making the medical/dental visit less stressful and easier to manage.

The survey was made up of four open-ended questions and one ranking question. The open-ended questions helped to gather a wide range of information from individuals and caregivers about their strategies, needs, and concerns that arise when they visit the doctor or dentist. Four questions asked about the kinds of supports they’ve had available to make their doctor/dentist visit successful, the tools and strategies they’ve used, and suggestions they had for office staff to help make the visit more pleasant. Individuals and caregivers were also asked to rank 10 statements about their office visit needs and wants by order of importance.

The people who responded gave a lot of great tips for both doctors/dentists and individuals and caregivers to use. And they reported a lot of common strategies and concerns. The responses consisted of suggestions for making appointments, making waiting time easier, and talking to doctors about the individual’s needs. The responses contained suggestions in two categories: what individuals, families, and caregivers need from doctors, dentists, and other office staff, and what they can do for themselves.

The tables below contain the top 10 suggestions in each category. To make remembering easier, you can print and cut out these tables. Laminating them will preserve them as a pocket guide for future use.

What we need from doctors, dentists, and other office staff:

  1. Doctors, dentists, and staff have an understanding of disabilities and the anxiety that individuals may have about medical/dental visits
  2. Treat individuals and caregivers with the same respect and dignity as others receive and recognize unique family strengths
  3. Have short wait times and a low stress, quiet environment, with special or separate waiting rooms
  4. Speak directly to the individual
  5. Allow extra time for the appointment
  6. Listen to caregivers’ and individuals’ expressed needs
  7. Share complete and unbiased information with families
  8. Allow caregivers to be present during visit and ask them questions when needed
  9. See the individual as a person with unique needs, not as a “disabled person”
  10. Make appropriate referrals and timely follow through with paperwork


What we can do for ourselves:

  1. Prepare the individual for doctor/dental visit through role-play, books, and pictures, etc.
  2. Bring distractions for waiting and exam rooms (books, music, video games, snacks, etc.) and offer rewards (prizes, outings, edibles, etc.)
  3. Ask for a “get acquainted” visit
  4. Schedule appointment at a time that is best for the individual, such as the first or last appointment of the day
  5. Keep a medical/dental journal of co-payments, medications, treatments, prior visits, and referrals
  6. Make sure the parking lot, building, and office are accessible
  7. Talk to the doctor/dentist before the visit, preparing staff ahead of time, and reminding them of the individual’s needs; mail or fax a summary letter if needed
  8. Bring a support person to listen to doctor, write things down, and help with other children
  9. Research medical/dental issues in books, journals, and online, and ask lots of questions
  10. Ask for the same doctor/staff each time

Deborah A. Chapin is an intern a is an intern at the New York State Developmental Disabilities Planning Council and is a graduate student at the State University of New York at Albany. Ms. Chapin is pursuing a doctoral degree in Educational Psychology and teaches child development and educational measurement. Her research and evaluation efforts focus on non-formal education for children with disabilities and other at-risk groups.

Robin Worobey is senior staff member at the New York State Developmental Disabilities Planning Council (DDPC) and is primarily responsible for the DDPC’s initiatives for families and for children with developmental disabilities. Ms. Worobey has over 25 years experience working in the disabilities field. In addition, Ms. Worobey is the parent of a teenage son with developmental disabilities. Ms. Worobey has a Bachelors of Science degree in Child and Family Services from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.