HIV Discrimination In Dental Care: Williams Institute Study Measures Refusal Of HIV/AIDS Patients By Dentists

Three decades into the AIDS epidemic, many HIV-positive patients still face routine discrimination when accessing dental care, a new California-based study has found.

Prepared by the Williams Institute, the study surveyed a total of 612 dentist offices throughout Los Angeles County, and found that five percent of all dental providers have a blanket policy of refusing services to HIV-positive individuals, with many claiming they lacked the necessary extra infection control precautions required for such treatment. In addition, another five percent would treat HIV-positive patients differently that others, in ways that could potentially violate anti-discrimination laws.

In conducting the survey, researchers reportedly posed as potential HIV-positive patients looking for a new dentist, with many saying they had Denti-Cal, a dental benefit tied to California’s Medicaid program. On a more positive note, the study also found that 90 percent of all dental offices in Los Angeles said they would accept an HIV-positive patient -- although the results varied across different parts of the county, often aligned with the rate of infection among area residents.

As the study notes, the figures were considerably less than other medical fields in the area. A staggering 55 percent of obstetricians would refuse services to HIV-positive individuals, followed by skilled nursing facilities (46 percent) and plastic surgeons (26 percent), according to the report.

Officials were mostly optimistic about the results, although admitting there was still additional room for improvement. "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 People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA),” 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, said in a press release.

Still, as Brad Sears, Executive Director of the Williams Institute and the study's co-author, noted, "While it is definitely encouraging that 90 percent 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.”