Dentistry: Associate Professor Mina Borromeo

Dental students at Melbourne taking art appreciation as part of special needs dentistry training.


Associate Professor Mina Borromeo (BSc Hons, BDSc, MScMed, PhD, GCUT, FFPMANZCA, FRACDS(SND)) leads the largest under-graduate and post-graduate special needs dentistry courses in the world here at the Melbourne Dental School.

“Dental care for patients with special needs doesn’t change —a filling is a filling—but the context of the patient’s health can be vastly different for patients with special needs and this will undoubtedly affect the outcome in terms of oral health.

“For example,” Associate Professor Borromeo explains, “telling a patient to brush their teeth is all well and good but if your patient has a disability that prevents them from using their hands, then this isn’t going to be achievable for them. Approaching our task with a holistic appreciation of the health and wellbeing of a patient is what I found was lacking in teaching students about a special needs context.”

Special needs dentistry encompasses patients grappling will all kinds of issues from mild phobias to psychiatric issues, developmental disorders or mobility issues. Associate Professor Borromeo realised that in order for her students to gain insight into their patient’s needs the power of empathy in the clinical environment needed to be woven into the curriculum.  After collaborating with colleagues locally and internationally, Associate Professor Borromeo introduced Arts-based intervention to her curriculum. In this course students examine artwork at the Ian Potter Museum in order to learn how to ‘observe in detail, think in-depth about what they observe, and describe it as well as building this into thinking about the special needs context and the empathy that surrounds that’.

“In the first year of introducing this into the course the students looked at me like I had three heads but it’s amazing how it has really taken off!”

The course quickly expanded to include an assignment in which students make their own creative work in response to the context of special needs patients. These creative responses have included sculptures, photography, paintings, poems and even a piece of music composed by a student.

In 2015 Associate Professor Borromeo won the David White Award for Teaching Excellence and an Australian Federal Government Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning.

“Special needs dentistry has come a long way in the last ten years and I think the profession, the public health system, and the general health of the patient is better for it. Yet there is still a long way to go to close the gap in the perception and awareness of the oral health needs for those with special needs.

“Training for special needs dentistry is all about the world in which the patients live. If I can teach all of my students to be more empathetic to their patients and understand the social, physical and psychological contexts of their health then all patients will be better off.”