Dental professor tackling opioid epidemic in classroom following son's overdose death

A long-time professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Dentistry is changing the way students perceive prescribing opioids after his own son died of a heroin overdose in 2014. Dr. Omar Abubaker, the department’s chair, spent a year educating himself about addiction, and now trains his students in accordance to new guidelines developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Virginia Board of Medicine, The Roanoke Times reported.

“This is the only disease created by doctors,” Abubaker told the news outlet. “And it could be fixed by doctors.”

Abubaker, who has been with the school for more than 25 years, said that before his 21-year-old son’s death, he was like any other doctor prescribing painkillers.


“Before, (it wasn’t) even a thought to give a prescription for a narcotic,” he told The Roanoke Times. “It’s just a practice. It’s a habit. Everybody that gets a tooth pulled – whether it’s one tooth or 10 teeth or all teeth – they get a prescription. And I don’t want to say I was careless, but I was like 95 percent of doctors and oral surgeons.”

Though he isn’t certain whether opioids led to his son’s heroin addiction and eventual overdose, Abubaker acknowledges that the nation’s crippling epidemic is starting in many medical offices, stemming from changes made to prescribing practices back in the 1990s.

“That’s when teaching pain management changed, by pharmacy companies, by hospitals, by everybody that wanted to make sure you gave enough pain medications,” Abubaker told The Roanoke Times. “I vividly remember people telling me that people don’t get addicted if they have pain.”


Abubaker has set his sights on patients treated at VCU’s Oral and Mxillofacial program, which saw 50 percent of patients in 2015 receive narcotics for procedures like extraction or implants, the news outlet reported. His goal is to lower that rate to less than 10 percent.

To get there, Abubaker has the assistance of several VCU-initiated programs such as an online continuing education courses for practicing providers at SafeOpiatePrescribing.Org., as well as the Motivate Clinic, which is an office-based opioid treatment program, The Roanoke Times reported.

Abubaker acknowledges that there is work to be done outside the classroom as well, including prosecuting drug dealers and treating addicts with more compassion.

“We have to have compassion,” he told the news outlet. “(My son) didn’t come to me before because he was embarrassed. Clearly he knew and he told me after the recovery that nobody wants to be an addict and nobody wants to be called an addict.