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JayMac: Kicking a drug habit by fixing the user’s teeth? Yeah, it works

File photo: In the first study of its kind, the University of Utah School of Dentistry provided dental care to 286 people undergoing substance abuse treatment at First Step and Odyssey House from 2015-2018. Researchers saw significant outcomes, with those who received the dental care staying in treatment two times longer and an 80 percent increase in them completing their programs, as compared with those who did not receive the dental care.

DISCLAIMER: the following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of KSL Newsradio or its ownership.

This story puts a smile on my face.

Researchers at the University of Utah School of Dentistry found that patients in drug treatment programs who received professional dental care stayed in the substance abuse programs two times longer and saw an 80% increase in completing the program than those who received no dental care.

“That was a wow factor,” says Glen Hanson, professor of the School of Dentistry at U. of U. Health.

In terms of patients finding a job, staying in a home and remaining abstinent, Hanson said, “We found that in all cases if they received comprehensive dental care, they did two to three times better than their counterparts who were just getting treatment for a substance-abuse disorder.

“If you look at substance abuse disorder,” Hanson says, “we do have medications, but about the best they can do is 10 to 20 percent improvement… so to have 200 percent is just unheard of.”

Including dental care inside a substance abuse program increases the patient’s rate of success by 200 percent. Yeah, that is a Big Wow.

Putting some teeth into the solution

If we were brainstorming on the air about how to get people off drugs, how long would it take us to land on dental care as a solution? We would never get there. I would have never thought about fixing teeth as a way to improve outcomes in drug addiction cases, but when you start to think about it, yeah, it makes a lot of sense.

Could a lack of self-esteem by sporting a set of bad teeth lead someone into drug abuse? Absolutely. We tend to look at substance abuse as the problem in and of itself, but this seems to indicate drug abuse may be just a symptom of a larger problem.

“These people all of a sudden feel a lot better about themselves. They’re smiling. They have confidence in what they’re doing and what they can do,” says Hanson. “They remove the pain because dental pain for these patients oftentimes is 24/7; it never goes away. And they restore their function, so they can eat normally and improve their social abilities. They can talk; they’re not hiding their mouth,” Hanson says.

Feds say that’s good stuff

“It’s the first time anyone has tried it in this country or in any other country that I’m aware of,” says Hanson. He and his group have presented the program at national conferences.

“They’ve started to call it the Utah Medicaid model,” he said.

Hanson said Medicaid representatives came to the U. of U. and were impressed with the program. The representatives said they were confident the federal government would approve this program, and they did, said Hanson.

“Our student have really enjoyed working with these patients. It’s been incredibly rewarding. They really like working with these folks for two reasons: There is some really interesting dentistry there, and these patients are so grateful. They so appreciate being cared for just like regular patients and normal people with normal wants.

“The dental students now know how their work can dramatically alter their patients’ lives,” Hanson said.

Once again, this is an example of how one size never fits all. We’ve been banging down the same door, saying every user abuses drugs for the same reason, or we need to lock up the drug user. But here comes someone with a different approach, and it turns out to be a huge success.

“There is a fairly robust literature showing if you improve the quality of life, you get better outcomes in the treatment of most chronic diseases, including substance abuse disorder,” says Hanson.

Quality of life includes self-confidence, increasing social interactions, finding employment and staying in a home, instead of living on the streets. Turns out fixing a patient’s teeth can deliver some or even all of those. Who knew?

The results of the study are available online in the Journal of the American Dental Association. Additionally, my team compiled a list of places where affordable dental care is available in Utah.

Jay Mcfarland hosts the JayMac News Show, weekdays from 12:30 to 3 p.m. on KSL Newsradio, as well as the fictional podcast, Hosts of Eden. KSL Newsradio is part of Bonneville Media and based in Salt Lake City, Utah.