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Learning about addiction

Learning about addiction
Dr. Brett Kessler

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles exploring wellness issues.

Salt Lake City—Dr. Brett Kessler's poison was alcohol and cocaine.

"For me, the party just never stopped," said the Denver-based dentist.

Dr. Kessler's experimentation began when he was 13 and escalated in college, somewhere crossing the line into addiction. He describes his addiction as "all encompassing," causing him to lose almost everything, including his wife, dental license and the support of his family and friends.

But 11-and-a-half years ago, Dr. Kessler remembered an addiction psychologist he heard speak about alcohol and drug addiction during his residency. The speech planted a seed in his mind and when he hit rock bottom, Dr. Kessler called a state help line and eventually went to rehab.

He's been sober ever since.

Now, through education, Dr. Kessler is helping dentists avoid getting to where he was. Dr. Kessler and Dr. John Murray, a New Jersey dentist, run the dental portion of the University of Utah School on Alcoholism and Other Drug Dependencies.

It's a weeklong conference, June 20-25, dedicated to educating all levels of the dentistry community about addiction. More than half of the 40-50 people Dr. Kessler expects to attend are former addicts in recovery.

"There are ways to get the help they need without losing their license or getting in trouble or hurting themselves or hurting others," Dr. Kessler said as part of the message he'll try to convey at the conference.

"The goal is for the attendees to take what they've learned at the conference back to their states and educate local dental leaders about addiction, resources and prevention," Dr. Kessler said.

The 2009 ADA House of Delegates referred Resolution 41 to the 2010 House for study and report. Dr. Kessler was happy to see that the resolution directs the ADA to promote a wellness program to encourage healthy diet, exercise and lifestyle for members.

"It is great to have the support of the ADA on such an important issue," Dr. Kessler said. 

The dental sessions will include the following topics:

  • an update on the marijuana industry;
  • prescription drugs;
  • how to spot the signs of relapsing in a dentist who’s in recovery;
  • drug testing;
  • pain management of the addicted patient;
  • the effect of methamphetamines on teeth.

Research indicates dentists are no more or less likely to develop substance abuse disorders than the general population. Like the general public, about 10-15 percent of dentists will have a drug and/or alcohol problem at some point in their lives, according to the ADA.

The stakes may be higher for dentists than for other individuals who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, because if a dentist's addiction is left untreated it could not only threaten their own lives and family stability but place patients, and their practices, in jeopardy.

Dentists with substance abuse problems could also lose more because they're usually single practitioners, and if the doctor goes down, so does the practice, Dr. Kessler said.

Oftentimes, the dental staff will enable a doctor because they know that if the dentist's addiction is revealed and he has to leave the practice, they don't have a job, Dr. Kessler said. The high-stress environment of dentistry could contribute to addiction as could dentists' easy access to drugs, Dr. Kessler said.

But dentists are more apt to agree to treatment and be successful at it, said Dr. Bob Herzog, a New York dentist, who's also a certified interventionist. Members of the general population who seek treatment for addiction have a 25 percent success rate versus the 90 percent success rate found in the dental community, said Dr. Herzog, who will attend the school this year as a guest and a panelist.

"The big difference is the response we get from professionals. Because they have a license and because they want to keep their license, they're much more apt to agree to treatment and they also respond very well," Dr. Herzog said.

According to policy adopted by the 2005 ADA House of Delegates, "colleagues, dental team members and the dentists' family members are urged to seek assistance and intervention when they believe a dentist is impaired." ADA policy also states "dentists in full remission from addictive illness should not be discriminated against in the areas of professional licensure, clinical privileges or inclusion in dental benefit network and provider panels solely due to the diagnosis and recovery from that illness."

It's that concept Dr. Kessler wants to get across to the conference attendees.

"What we're trying to do is lower the barrier of shame and let everybody know that help is available," Dr. Kessler said. "Addiction is a chronic, progressive disease that is treatable."

Dr. Herzog, whose panel discussion will focus on how states can start and maintain well being programs, has attended the conference for the past several years and has taken what he's learned and relayed it to fellow members of the New York Dental Association's committee on chemical dependency, which he chairs.

"We're aiming at very early intervention," Dr. Herzog said. "We're trying to get the dentists who have a problem with alcohol or have a problem with drugs long before there's any patient harm or any legal consequences."

Participating in the University of Utah’s conference not only allows Dr. Kessler to help others, it allows him to continue helping himself.

"With addiction, everything in life that is worthwhile gets lost. It is easy to see the negative face of addiction. This whole week is showing that recovery's possible with proper treatment," Dr. Kessler said. "Part of my recovery that keeps me in recovery is helping other people get the help they need."

For more information on the School on Alcoholism and Other Drug Dependencies, visit