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After Son’s Death, Richmond Dentist Works To Combat Opioid Addiction

Dr. Abubaker is working to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic among dentists.
Dr. Abubaker is working to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic among dental students. Louise Ricks/WCVE

One of the common ways teens are exposed to opioids is when they’re being treated for pain, from an injury or for oral surgery. One local dentist has been working to combat the epidemic in the dentist’s office and in the classroom. WCVE Intern Kate Seltzer reports.

Transcript:

By 10 o’clock in the morning, the VCU dental clinic is already bustling with patients. They’re waiting to be treated by VCU’s dentists, or in some cases, dental students like Eleanor Manzini who met with me in between pulling teeth.

Manzini: I came here to VCU and Dr. Abubaker is preaching this whole opioid this and that.

Oral surgeon Dr. Omar Abubaker wasn’t always such a vocal advocate for opioid education and reform.

Abubaker: I have written probably thousands and thousands [of] prescriptions for Vicodin, Percocet, for my patients over the last 27 years.

That changed a few years ago when he lost his son Adam to addiction.

Abubaker: It was a heroin overdose.

He thinks Adam’s addiction began when he was prescribed over 70 opioid tablets after a shoulder surgery.

Abubaker: And back then even though I thought it was too many, but I didn't think much of it.

After his son’s death, Abubaker participated in an addiction studies course at VCU. He says it’s changed the way he treats patients and the way he prescribes medication. Raising the topic with parents has been taboo, but he thinks that’s changing. 

Abubaker: And parents find it I think refreshing: not only are they open to the idea, but they’re looking for these discussions. Some of them come to me specifically because they know I talk openly about these issues.

He also advises patients - or parents - to fill an opioid prescription only if alternative pain medications, like a combination of ibuprofen and tylenol, don’t work. Of about 50 patients he gave a prescription to over the last six months, only three ended up filling it.

Abubaker: Which tells me that that prescription is needed less than 6% of the time.

In 2017, legislation in Virginia required the state Board of Dentistry to adopt new emergency regulations that limit use of opioid prescriptions for pain management. They also mandated continuing education courses for practicing dentists, like the course Dr. Abubaker is running.

The Virginia Dental Association was a big supporter of the new regulation changes. President Dr. Benita Miller says they’re working to help dentists comply with the new law.

Miller: We’ve supported the Board of Dentistry’s emergency regulations that require at least two hours of countinuing education on pain management every two years.

She also says patients have been overwhelmingly receptive to fewer opioid prescriptions.

Miller: I think patients are wanting to avoid opioids as much as they can. You know, they're willing to have a little bit of discomfort in order to not have the opioids.

Dr. Abubaker expects to see less opioid abuse over the next few years. But he worries there’ll be more abuse of drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

Abubaker: It's like a snake. Because if you don't cut off the head, which is the addiction, it’ll keep coming back with something else.

Still, he remains hopeful that dental students graduating now will be less judgmental when treating patients with addiction, and more hesitant to prescribe opioids for pain after dental work. That’s been the case for Abubaker’s student Eleanor Manzini.

Manzini: Before, all we ever knew was if somebody gets addicted, it's their own moral failing... Now I know that hey, we also contribute to this, so we can also do something to help them not get into that situation. And that's what I'm getting and hope all the other students are getting as well.

For WCVE News, I’m Kate Seltzer.