Dentists and opioid addiction: where the mouth and the opioid epidemic intersect
Highlighting the undeniable connection of dental services and medical care, three major dental schools in Massachusetts launched an initiative to combat the opioid crisis by teaching dental students skills in pain management and use of prescription pain killers. Notably, the program also trains and encourages dentists to collaborate with other health professionals in identifying and treating addiction. Governor Baker announced the agreement:
Dentists prescribe about 8% of opioids, the third-highest profession to do so. Because of this, dentists and oral health professionals are in a unique position to help combat opioid addiction. Not only do dentists regularly encounter patients experiencing pain, they are also unique in the amount of time they spend with each patient – on average, one hour compared to the primary care physician’s ten or twenty minutes. Dentists and other oral health providers are primed to play a strong role in prevention as well as education on a number of medical issues.
As the opioid crisis shows, greater integration of dental services into medical care and vice versa can yield powerful results, but training doctors and dentists individually to identify and address opioid addiction is not enough. Medical and dental providers must be regularly engaging and interacting to coordinate patient health, and every practice (both medical and dental) should have facilitated referral networks so that patients can access the care they need. This should also include inter-operational electronic health record (EHR) systems so that all providers can access a patient’s health history. What would it look like, for example, if a dentist identified a patient as being vulnerable to opioid addiction and was then able to relay that information to their primary care physician?
With regards to the opioid crisis, coordinated care means providers are more likely to avoid over-prescription and can readily assess behavioral risks based on a patient’s health history. This program is a strong step towards integrated health. Health Care For All applauds initiatives like this and we hope to see more collaborative, cross-professional thinking in the future.
--Kate Frisher & Sara O'Brien