Health Beat: Dental care improves drug rehab


Methamphetamine and heroin left Destiny Garcia's teeth in bad shape.

"I was a drug addict, homeless, living on the street," Garcia said. "I used to shoplift on a daily basis to support my habit."

Help came in the form of dentistry students, who were part of a program devised by Dr. Glen Hanson, the vice dean of the University of Utah School of Dentistry. He'd long suspected oral health would improve drug rehab, and the program proved it.

"They noticed that those who were getting comprehensive dental care as part of their treatment, they stayed in treatment for substance abuse disorder two to three times longer," Hanson said.

Study participants stayed in rehab 300 days, compared to 100 days for those who didn't get care. They were two to three times more likely to get a job and stay off drugs, and Hanson said homelessness almost disappeared.

"Good things are going to happen, both in terms of getting a job, presenting yourself," Hanson said. "When you look in the mirror, you have a better feeling of who you are."

The study's authors don't say why the dental program works, but Garcia knows.

"When you're in a drug treatment program, you're working on your insides so much, and if you don't work on those outsides to match the way you feel on the inside, people are still going to judge you the same," Garcia said.

She added that her new teeth mean new possibilities and allow her to kiss her baby and her family without hiding her mouth.

The original grant for the dentistry program ran out, but Hanson worked to get the legislature to approve a new program for the same client base, and it's tied to Medicaid. He said not only is it life-changing for clients, it will save the state and federal government money in rehab relapse, prison costs, and health care costs.