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Dental Patients, Providers Urged to Reduce Reliance on Opioids

A 2016 study found nearly 100 million prescribed painkillers go unused after wisdom tooth extractions. That's led to efforts to get dentists and their patients to rely less on opioids. (Adobe Stock)
A 2016 study found nearly 100 million prescribed painkillers go unused after wisdom tooth extractions. That's led to efforts to get dentists and their patients to rely less on opioids. (Adobe Stock)
March 2, 2020

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The role the dental industry can play in addressing the opioid crisis is being highlighted in a new outreach campaign.

The effort is spearheaded by Minnesota-based United Healthcare. The company says the main concern is prescribing opioids to patients in their late teens following a procedure.

United says according to its data, dentists prescribe 12% of opioids nationwide. But they prescribe 54% of the drug dispensed to people aged 19 and younger.

Dr. Michael Mermigas, clinical director of national dental opioid policy at United Healthcare, says these prescriptions often happen when teens have their wisdom teeth pulled.

"We placed our focus in this area and this particular population because they are most likely at this age to become dependent on opioids," he explains.

United Healthcare is now offering a toolkit for patients and providers so they can be informed about the risks of using opioids as a painkiller.

Separately, the American Dental Association has adopted a policy that also encourages the use of alternative treatments, such as over-the-counter pain medication.

Mermigas says for teens, going to the dentist might be one of the first medical appointments they experience without their parents present. He says making sure they're informed about how opioids could sideline them from their daily life could be helpful as they make an important decision on their own.

"Would you like to miss as least amount of time in schools as possible?" he raises. "Opioids would not be the treatment of choice."

In addition to the toolkit, United also is monitoring which dentists are consistently prescribing opioids above guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It has followed up with those doctors about the risks. And it placed a pharmacy cap on prescribing opioid medicine for teens.

Disclosure: United Healthcare-Midwest Region contributes to our fund for reporting on Health Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Mike Moen, Public News Service - MN