People with drug problems don't often come to mind as an underserved population regarding health care. Yet, because of their substance abuse issues, they often go without essential medical services, particularly when it comes to caring for their teeth and other oral tissues.
"This population is almost always ignored," says Glen Hanson, D.D.S., Ph.D., interim dean of the School of Dentistry (SOD). "Whether it's tooth decay and loss caused by methamphetamine abuse, or infections and diseases in the mouth related to other drug problems, people with substance abuse issues have notoriously poor oral health."
Providing oral health care to underserved populations is an important part of the SOD's mission, and in that light the school applied for and received a $1.5 million federal grant to create a unique program that provides essential dental services to drug abusers. The grant also will enable the school to train future dentists to provide oral health care to that population, according to Hanson, as well as help make therapists for substance use disorders aware of oral needs of their patients.
The three-year grant comes from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an agency in the Department of Health and Human Services dedicated to improving access to health care. HRSA recently added oral health care to its list of priorities and established a grant program to jump-start oral health care to underserved groups of people. The agency wanted applicants to stress novel projects and ideas, and Sri Koduri, director of strategic planning for the U dental school, led the effort. Only one application was allowed per state, and of the approximately 50 that the HRSA received, only 16 were awarded grants, with the U dental school among them.
Drug abusers often suffer from bad nutrition because their poor teeth make eating difficult and very painful. They also have oral diseases and chronic infections that contribute to other health problems, including cardiovascular illnesses and strokes caused by bacteria in the mouth that get into the body.
"We rarely find programs that provide oral care for substance abusers," Hanson says. "That's why we wanted to create a program for them in our grant application."
Along with the benefits for substance abusers, the grant will enable the SOD to give dental students the experience of providing care for that population as part of their rotations during junior and senior years. Many of these patients have complex problems, according to Hanson, which will provide an added level to students' training. The grant size will allow the school to work with about 200 substance abuse patients, Hanson estimates.
The SOD will work with substance abuse treatment agencies such as First Step House and Odyssey House to identify patients who are most likely to benefit from the grant program. The Utah Addiction Center, which Hanson directs and is part of the School of Dentistry, also will have a role in the grant.
Students being supervised by a faculty member will treat patients at either University of Utah Health Care's Greenwood Health Center or the School of Dentistry. Providing dental care, from root canals to dentures and everything in between, can have a remarkable impact on a drug abuser, according to Hanson. Besides contributing to health problems, having poor teeth prevents many abusers from trying to improve their situations and getting jobs, and Hanson believes that providing oral care will help them improve their response to substance abuse treatment.
Hanson expects the grant project to get underway in the next couple of months.
University of Utah Health Sciences