Public Toolkit Addresses the Opioid Epidemic in Oral Health

Dentistry Today
Courtesy of UnitedHealthcare


Courtesy of UnitedHealthcare

UnitedHealthcare says it has expanded its efforts to help address the connection between dental care and the opioid epidemic, introducing a public toolkit with information to help support oral healthcare professionals and patients, especially after wisdom tooth removal for teens and young adults. 

The toolkit provides information for oral health professionals and all consumers, including an educational flyer with commonly asked questions related to opioids and a checklist to help people better understand pain management options before and after wisdom tooth removal.

Also, the toolkit builds upon a companywide approach to address the opioid epidemic from all angles, UnitedHealthcare says, including dental care. This approach includes a pharmacy policy, outreach to dental health professionals and plan participants, along with television and radio public service announcements. 

Taken together, the company says, these efforts have resulted in an 89% reduction in opioid prescriptions above federal guidelines written by network dental health professionals for UnitedHealthcare dental plan participants age 19 and under.

“Confronting the opioid epidemic requires a comprehensive approach involving multiple stakeholders across the healthcare system, including addressing the often overlooked connection with dental care,” said Tom Wiffler, CEO of UnitedHealthcare Specialty Benefits. “Working together, these initiatives are making a meaningful difference in helping address this important national public health issue.”

The opioid epidemic causes more than 130 overdose deaths each day, and its economic costs exceed $500 billion annually, according to the Council of Economic Advisors. Also, oral health professionals write 12% of all opioid prescriptions, including more than 54% of opioid prescriptions for adolescents, who are particularly vulnerable to addiction, the company says. 

UnitedHealthcare’s approach to combatting opioid use related to dental care also includes:

  • Pharmacy policy: The policy change, enacted in late 2018, capped at three days and fewer than 50 morphine milligram equivalents per day for all first-time opioid prescriptions written by UnitedHealthcare network dental health professionals for people age 19 and under, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Dental health professionals: Network dental health professionals identified as consistently prescribing opioids above CDC guidelines as measured by the number of days per supply and/or morphine milligram equivalents per day will receive information about their status and access to the pain management toolkit to share with patients. Following similar UnitedHealthcare outreach last year to more than 2,800 oral health professionals, prescribing patterns improved by 12%.
  • Dental plan participants: Nearly 72,000 UnitedHealthcare dental plan participants with dependents between the ages of 16 and 22 received information by email about the risks associated with opioids, specifically in connection with wisdom tooth extractions. More than two-thirds (70%) of wisdom tooth extractions for people between the ages of 16 and 22 result in at least one opioid prescription, UnitedHealthcare says, so this information is designed to help parents and young people better identify pain management alternatives and strategies to manage the frequency of use, dosage, and proper disposal of unused opioids. A study from Stanford University found that teens and young adults can struggle with opioid addiction following wisdom tooth removal.
  • Public service announcements: In collaboration with Shatterproof, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to reversing the addiction crisis in the United States, UnitedHealthcare aired television and radio public service announcements on nearly 400 stations across the country, helping parents and health professionals understand the connection between oral health and the opioid epidemic.

UnitedHealthcare additionally says that it is collaborating with healthcare providers and communities and using data and analytics to prevent opioid misuse and addiction, tailor ways to treat people who are addicted, and support long-term recovery.

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