Can Dental Care Help Those Recover from Drug Abuse

University_Utah_School_dentistryThis is the story about Branden Jenkins. Jenkins used to hide his teeth all the time. He was ashamed. He got some much-needed help. And through that help, we are starting to see and wonder, can dental care help those in need recover from drug abuse?

At 13, Jenkins was introduced to drugs. That turned into an addiction, escalating to painkillers, then heroin or whatever he could get, Jenkins said.

Jenkins found himself in a downtown Salt Lake City, Utah homeless shelter until he got arrested Aug. 23, 2017, during Operation Rio Grande, and spent about a month and a half in jail.

“By that point, I really needed help. I just didn’t know how to get help, pretty much,” Jenkins recalled Tuesday in his apartment near the Gateway.


What is the Program About

Jenkins described signing up for the Odyssey House program because he’d heard “it’s hard to get through.”

Jenkins, 35, found support at Odyssey House. He also found a different, unexpected kind of help that would also change his life.

” It makes all the difference in the world to people if they see you have no teeth in your mouth … they treat you totally different. “

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. It was called the FLOSS study, and it allowed student dentists learn to treat those with substance abuse disorder by replacing missing teeth, performing root canals, providing dentures and a variety of other procedures.

The program accepted Jenkins. Having all of his teeth pulled was a painful process. And because he was in rehab, he couldn’t take any painkillers to treat the pain. However, he says it was worth the pain.

“It’s like I had to learn how to smile again, because I was always just trying to hide my mouth. Like, a lot of people didn’t even know that I didn’t have teeth because I would hide it so well.”

As with Jenkins, the 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 to those who did not receive the dental care. This is more than anecdotal. These are clear cut results.


What Were the Outcomes

Researchers also discovered that those who had their oral health issues addressed were two to three times more likely to get jobs after treatment and were much less likely to be homeless, he said.

The research was published May 20, 2019 in the Journal of the American Dental Association.

Funds received from the Health Resources and Services Administration paid for the program. When it began, Odyssey House and First Step started reporting “very dramatic” improvements in the dental patients.

Jenkins graduated from Odyssey House and Rio Grande drug court and has been off drugs for two years now. He was recently promoted to yard foreman for the company where he works.

A lot of the people who went through the FLOSS program with him are “still doing really good,” he said.

Other substance abuse treatment centers have become aware of the program and said they wanted to get as many of their patients enrolled as they could.

While returning to dentistry to help the U. start its dental program, lead author of the study, Dr. Glen Hanson said he “started putting the pieces together.” Addicts often have major oral health problems.

Medication is a common way to deal with drug abuse, Hanson said, and if you find a medication that improves outcomes by 20 percent, “that is a dramatic outcome. That medication will probably become a blockbuster medication because 20 percent in the world of treating these patients is pretty impressive.”


While the research itself didn’t delve into why those with dental care had a higher rate of success, Hanson said he believes it’s because it improved their confidence and general quality of life.

“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 normal and improve their social abilities. They feel confident now, they can talk, they’re not hiding their mouth,” according to Hanson.

“And our students have come to appreciate working with these patients. When we first started it, you know, they first thought, ‘Do I really want to be working on a person that has drug abuse problems?’ They’ve imagined these very negative things about these people and they were concerned, and so we trained them, both our students as well as our faculty as to what these people look like, and convinced them these are normal people. They have normal desires.”

The U. dentists are now doing assessments on current patients like they did with FLOSS patients. They’re hoping if they can repeat the results, the “discussion becomes ‘look at the savings,'” in terms of lives and money.

The program costs an average of $1,200 per patient for treatment at the U. That cost is much less than it would be out in the community, Hanson said. If a high percentage of them are able to get off drugs and get jobs, that could save the government $30,000 per year per person to keep them in jail or in treatment programs, according to Hanson.

For Jenkins, getting a new smile “made all the difference in the world,” he said.

“Because, like if I got out of treatment and did all this stuff, and I still had to feel like I was ashamed of myself, or ashamed of how I looked, it would just be a lot harder to deal with everything … and the way people look at you, treat you. It makes all the difference in the world to people if they see you have no teeth in your mouth … they treat you totally different,” according to Jenkins.

“And it just feels good to be able to smile again.”

A dentist like Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg cares for his patients unlike any other dentist in the South Florida, primarily the Plantation area. Whether you are getting extensive work done like a root canal, Invisalign, crowns, or full dentures, or lighter work such as whitening, fillings, or preventative oral care, this is your dentist’s office.

Dr. Rosenberg is a Miami, Florida native who received his undergrad degree from Emory University and got his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from Georgetown University Dental School. He has been in private practice for over 20 years. Dr. Rosenberg is President-Elect of the Broward County Dental Association. He is Vice President of the Broward Dental Research Clinic where has been on the board of directors for five years. He is a member of the Intracoastal Study Club. Professional memberships include the American Dental Association, the Florida Dental Association, the Atlantic Coast District Dental Association, and the Broward County Dental Association.


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