Dental assistants and patient drug usage

May 6, 2008
Since drug use is becoming so common, dental assistants and other dental staff should be properly trained in the areas of drug use, drug interactions, and promoting drug treatment.

Dental assistants are accustomed to working with patients who suffer from poor dental hygiene.

Statistics show that more than 10.5 million people in the United States are affected by drug and alcohol use. Dental assistants can recognize substance abuse easily. Many parents are completely dumbfounded when the dental assistant informs them that their child appears to have a drug dependency that is affecting their oral health. Types of drug abuse they encounter include sedatives, barbiturates, and narcotics.

The effects of drug use in relation to oral health care include missing dental appointments, fear, anxiety, cravings for sweets, the risk of infection from Hepatitis B and HIV, oral neglect, periodontal disease, gingivitis, and painful gums. It's easy to see from this list how taking drugs can lead to ongoing oral health issues. If the drug use continues, lost teeth and inflamed gums may increase.

Dental assistants are often consulted when patients call the dental office or come in complaining of severe tooth pain. This can be a ploy by the patient to obtain drugs from the dental facility, either in the office or through a prescription. Dental assistants need to watch for these scenarios and listen to their gut reaction. Often these individuals come in at closing time, get a prescription and an appointment for the next morning, get the prescription filled, but never show up for the appointment.

Since drug use is becoming so common, dental assistants and other dental staff should be properly trained in the areas of drug use, drug interactions, and promoting drug treatment. If an employer does not offer such training, it's important to bring it to his or her attention. In the meantime, it's the dental assistant's responsibility to become educated in these areas. This can be done with textbooks and online materials.

Dental assistants can provide patients with education, early intervention, and the motivation to seek treatment. They can also help patients find a treatment program. It's important for the dental assistant to treat the patient with respect, but also to fully disclose the risks of continued drug use and how it affects dental health. This is where communication skills come into play.

Dental assistants need to be very careful when providing dental care to drug users. Since drug users generally don't disclose the types of drugs they use, we don't know what types of behaviors they will display. They may become violent or experience a chemical reaction when treated with a local anesthetic.

Treating patients who use drugs increases the risk of being exposed to communicable diseases. Dental assistants should take all necessary precautions to protect themselves. Most dental facilities have policies and procedures in place for dealing with patients under the influence of drugs and other substances. But for ongoing drug users, staff might not even know patients have been using anything prior to treating them.

As a dental assistant, if you suspect a patient uses drugs, approach the situation confidentially and carefully. Your main goal is to make sure other patients and staff members are not at risk of being harmed. You have the right as a dental assistant to refuse treatment to anyone for any reason. While most dental assistants don't often exercise this right, there is no reason to put yourself or others at risk.

Drug use can adversely affect an individual's oral health. Dental assistants can help patients get treatment for drug use, and can educate patients on the effects of drug use. However, this is a gray area where dental assistants need a procedure based on the observations of the patient and the policies and procedures of the dental facility.