Many dentists now ask patients about illegal drug use

September 4, 2015

A new study by researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health found 77 percent of dentists do. It also found that more than half of dentists (54 percent) believe it is their responsibility to conduct these screenings.

 

Do you screen your patients for illegal drug use?

A new study by researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health found 77 percent of dentists do.

It also found that more than half of dentists (54 percent) believe it is their responsibility to conduct these screenings.

"There are a sizeable number of people whose visit to a dentist represents their sole interaction with the health care system, highlight the significance of the dental visit as a key opportunity to identify substance use disorders," Carrigan Parish, DMD, associate research scientist in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, said in a press release. "However, our findings underscore a significant barrier in dentists' attitudes that may limit the potential of the dental venue to play a role in screening for substance misuse."

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Screening for drug abuse is important as these substances can cause tooth decay, wear and loss and gum disease, the researchers said. In addition, dentists are the second-largest group to prescribe narcotic pain medicines like Vicodin and OxyContin, according to the study. Substances abusers may go to these professionals hoping to obtain these prescriptions.

"Because dental care routinely involves treating pain and emergencies, dentists may encounter substance-seeking patients who complain of pain more severe than anticipated based on the nature of their dental condition,  report lost prescriptions for opioid pain medications or who only seek dental treatment sporadically," Parish said.

More on drug use: Study finds link between alcohol consumption and gum health

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Dentists who feel illegal drug screening is part of their professional duty were more likely to screen patients (86 percent) compared to those who do not (68 percent), according to the study.

In addition, dentists younger than age 53 were more likely than older dentists to believe that it was their responsibility to conduct drug screening (62 percent vs. 47 percent). Women were also more likely than men to say dentists should screen for illegal drug use (61 percent vs. 52 percent).

The survey did not ask dental patients feel about these screenings.

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"While surveys have shown that patients are amenable to receiving medical screenings by dentists chairside for such conditions as HIV, heart disease and diabetes, further studies directly addressing patient attitudes on substance misuse screening are key in determining patients' acceptance of such services," Parish said.

Many of these patients seek cosmetic treatment, such as whitening and veneers, which provides an excellent opportunity for dentists to discuss any suspected illegal drug usage, the researchers say. 

Survey results were published online recently in the journal Addiction. More than 1,200 dentists nationwide responded to the survey.

To learn more about the study, read the press release here.

More research: Survey discovers shocking number of patients lie to their dentists about flossing