A University of Utah dental school program teaching students how to care for the under-served yielded more than fixed teeth. A study found that 300 clients who got comprehensive dental care stayed in rehab longer — and got jobs and homes. The improvement over the 1,000 clients who didn’t get dental care was dramatic.

“I was a drug addict, homeless, living on the street. I used to shoplift on a daily basis to support my habit,” said Destiny Garcia, whose teeth were damaged by meth and heroin use. 

Garcia credits the student-run program, devised by Dr. Glen Hanson, for helping turn her life around. 

“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," said Dr. Hanson, DDS, Ph.D., Vice Dean, School of Dentistry at the University of Utah — adding that he’d long suspected oral health would improve drug rehab.

According to the study results, participants stayed in rehab 300 days compared to 100 days for those who didn’t get care. They were also two to three times more likely to get a job and stay off drugs. Dr. Hanson says homelessness almost disappeared.

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

The study’s authors don’t say why the dental program works, but Garcia has her own explanation. 

“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 says her new teeth mean new possibilities and allow her to kiss her baby and family without hiding her mouth.

The original grant for the dentistry program ran out. But Dr. Hanson worked to get the Legislature to approve a new program for the same client base, one that's tied to Medicaid. Not only is this life-changing for clients,  Dr. Hanson says it will save the state and federal government money in rehab relapse, prison costs and health care.

Contributors to this news report include: Wendy Chioji, Field Producer; Jason Ball, Videographer; Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Roque Correa, Editor.