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How dentists can help fix America’s opioid epidemic

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioid-related drug overdoses have tripled from 1999 to 2014. Additionally, opioids were present in 60.9 percent of overdose deaths in 2014.
It is increasingly apparent the United States has an opioid abuse epidemic on its hands, and dentists may be surprised to find themselves in the middle of this rapidly-growing problem.

Opioids are powerful painkillers that range from legal prescriptions including Oxycodone and Vicodin to illegal narcotics like heroin. Unfortunately, many patients are unaware of the proper ways to discard the legal medications when they are no longer needed, which makes the drugs available for recreational use. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has strict guidelines and regulations for disposing of medication to help patients safely remove them from their house.
Professionals providing these drugs must ensure every patient knows the right way to discard them. But, doctors may ask, is this truly necessary? After all, how often do patients have leftover opioids if they are in pain?

A study by Harvard researchers published in 2016 concluded practically every dental professional overprescribes opioid painkillers. The same study also found dentists tend to write opioid prescriptions at a higher dosage than necessary.
Dentists certainly aren’t alone — medical professionals including stressed emergency room doctors and doctors who misdiagnose patients are also responsible for the overprescription of these potent medicines.

A whopping 99 percent of doctors who responded to a National Safety Council survey admitted to prescribing opioid painkillers to patients for longer than three days, the amount recommended by the CDC. Patients often use these drugs as prescribed as needed, then leave the remaining amount unattended in medicine cabinets, where other members of the family have easy access to misuse them.
Medical and dental professionals found by the government to regularly overprescribe these medicines can also end up in severe legal trouble.
More than 3,500 prescribing licenses were surrendered by doctors, nurse practitioners, dentists and veterinarians from 2011 to 2015 as reported by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Hundreds more were revoked. Those found in violation of overprescribing opioids are putting their profession and future employability at risk.

To rectify this growing problem, dentists, doctors and pharmacists need to provide adequate information to their patients about the dangers of drug misuse. Additionally, prescribers will also need to teach patients the proper procedures for discarding leftover drugs. This can easily be supplied in the form of issuing an informational pamphlet along with the medicine, posted signs in the dental office or even instructing patients verbally about the proper disposal per federal and state laws.

Keeping patients safe and informed drastically reduces a professional’s likelihood of violating laws or putting medical licenses at risk. Performing due diligence when it comes to combating the country’s opioid problems protects an individual’s practice, and, more importantly, helps protect patients’ lives.

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