Professor Mounts Crusade Against Opioid Crisis After Losing Son To Overdose

By Paul Fuhr 08/29/17

The Virginia Commonwealth University professor is on a mission to change opioid prescribing practices. 

Dr. Omar Abubaker
Dr. Omar Abubaker Photo via YouTube

A broken-hearted professor began a hugely personal crusade against opioid prescription—and an entire university followed him. At least, that’s what it seems like when it comes to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and addiction.

Dr. Omar Abubaker, the chair of VCU’s Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, habitually prescribed opioids “like every other doctor,” according to a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch feature. In fact, Abubaker counted himself among the “95% of doctors and oral surgeons” who prescribed opioids—never once questioning it. The country’s opioid epidemic, however, hit too close to home, claiming the life of his 21-year-old son. 

Instead of completely gutting Dr. Abubaker, though, the experience motivated him. He began learning everything he could about what went wrong with his son—and where we, as a country, continue to go wildly wrong with opioids. In just one year, he’d earned a graduate certificate in addiction studies.

“I educated myself, because I didn’t want to be talking about it emotionally as a parent,” he told the Times-Dispatch. “As an educator, I have to talk intelligently and scientifically.”

Interestingly enough, dentists and oral surgeons are a widely-known yet little-reported part of the vast opioid problem. A recent New York Times article charged that dentists prescribe the lion’s share of opioids to people aged 10 to 19 (think: wisdom teeth)—an age range that also happens to be a “sweet spot” for the human brain and addiction. 

The Times also, however, contends that many professionals are slowly switching out opioids with a more effective combinations of drugs. “Anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin aren’t simply effective in combating the pain of dental work—they’re actually better at it than Vicodin, research results have shown,” one story argued, advocating for combinations of NSAIDs and ibuprofen.

And while that’s helpful in bringing painkiller prescriptions (and by proxy, prescription painkiller deaths) down in 2017, it doesn’t help “people cut off from the painkillers they grew addicted to,” the Times-Dispatch cautions. In other words, none of this is going to change overnight.

Regardless, the tide is turning. In 2015, while 50% of dental patients at VCU received a narcotic prescription (including opioids), only 44% received one in 2016. Still, Abubaker thinks we can do better, aiming for less than 10% of opioids prescribed for extractions. It’s an aggressive number, yes, but one’s that’s as possible as it is necessary, he believes. “This is the only disease created by doctors,” Abubaker said. “And it could be fixed by doctors.”

Overall, VCU is doing its part to make that true. The school kicked off an ambitious continuing ed program, Safe Opiate Prescribing, whose mission statement is “to become a national model for transforming communities and healthcare through innovations in education, scholarship and practice focused on increasing interprofessional care.” So far, it’s a multifaceted approach for practicing providers that involves coursework, licensure and awareness programs.

Additionally, VCU’s landmark MOTIVATE Clinic has received attention in recent months as a “bridge to walk patients from immediate treatment to continued treatment”—though it’s garnered so much interest that it currently can’t fill demand. 

With so much work left to be done when it comes to the opioid epidemic, it’s heartening to see a university like VCU become such a bold, uncompromising face as it challenges conventions and drives innovation.

And while Dr. Abubaker’s son died from a heroin overdose (a story he still doesn’t have all the details about), the exact circumstances of his death become almost meaningless: it’s far more important that his son not become a nameless statistic in all the ways Abubaker is determined to prevent others from following his son’s same fate.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.