Background. Little is known about the characteristics of children with special health care needs (CSHCN) who have unmet dental care needs.

Objective. We sought to describe the magnitude of unmet needs for dental care among CSHCN and to characterize those with unmet dental care needs.

Design, Setting, and Subjects. We used data from the National Survey of Children with Special Health Care Needs, which used a telephone survey to identify 750 CSHCN from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Families of 38 866 CSHCN were interviewed, and the data were weighted to represent 9.32 million CSHCN nationally.

Outcome. Our primary outcome of interest was unmet dental care need, defined as whether CSHCN were said to have needed dental care but were unable to obtain it. We also considered reasons why a child had an unmet dental care need and compared other categories of health care service needs and unmet needs with dental care. Bivariate and multivariate analyses were conducted to determine factors associated with unmet dental care needs.

Results. Overall, 78% of CSHCN were reported as needing dental care in the past 12 months, which was second only to prescription medications in the frequency of need. Of those who reported a dental care need, an estimated 755 581 or 10.4% of CSHCN did not receive all of the dental care they needed. Relative to all other health care service categories, unmet dental care needs affected the most children. Poorer children, uninsured children, children with lapses in insurance, and children with greater limitations attributable to disability had significantly greater odds of unmet dental care needs in multivariate analyses. Children with a personal doctor or nurse were significantly less likely to have unmet dental care needs.

Conclusions. Dental care is the most prevalent unmet health care need for CSHCN, affecting substantially more children than any other health care need category. Moreover, the perceived need for dental care for CSHCN exceeds the need for either preventive or specialty medical care. Given these findings, dental care should be an integral and explicitly stated part of the comprehensive coordinated services that the medical home aims to provide for CSHCN. Greater efforts to improve access to dental care for poor and more disabled CSHCN are needed.

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