Are Dentists Still Overprescribing Opioids?

By Beth Leipholtz 07/11/18

A new study examined the opioid prescription patterns of dentists who care for patients with private insurance. 

dentist talking to patient

While dentists have been writing a declining number of opioid prescriptions in the past few years, two new studies indicate that there still may be reason for dental professionals to take precautions when prescribing. 

According to PEW Trusts, one such study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association in April examined the prescribing patterns among dentists who tended to privately insured patients. From 2010 to 2015, opioid prescriptions per 1,000 patients increased from 131 to 147, study authors found. 

"The fact that we're still prescribing opioids when we've demonstrated that nonsteroidals are as effective most of the time is a little disturbing," Dr. Paul Moore, co-author of the analysis and professor at the University of Pittsburgh's dental school, told Modern Health Care.

The study found that the biggest increase—about 66%—was in those ages 11 to 18. The study also noted that for all age groups, almost one-third of the opioid prescriptions written were for visits that were not surgical in nature, for which study authors state non-opioids could also be effective for pain.

According to Modern Health Care, an analysis of five studies in the Journal of the American Dental Association found that nonsteroidal anti-inflammation drugs like ibuprofen are effective for dental pain.

The second study was published at the same time in the same journal, and examined outpatient care for Medicaid patients. Researchers found that from 2013 to 2015, nearly 25% of those patients filled a prescription for opioids. They also discovered that emergency department providers were more likely to give opioids to patients with dental issues.

The study found that 38% of patients who sought care in an emergency department then filled an opioid prescription in comparison to 11% of those who went to the dentist.

“Dentists are providing substantially less opioid prescriptions compared to their medical colleagues for pain treatment following a dental diagnosis in the Medicaid population,” study authors wrote. “When considering pain management for dental and related conditions, dentists should continue with conservative prescribing practices as recommended.”

According to PEW Trusts, the results of the study come at a good time, as the American Dental Association recently released an interim policy on prescribing opioids.

The policy lays out a number of guidelines for providers to follow and encourages continuing education about opioid use for dentists. It also states that dentists should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines about dosage and length of opioid prescriptions.

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.