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Why Doctors Need More Training on Addiction
More than 72,000 Americans died in 2017 from drug overdoses, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. That’s saddening and alarming.
But opioids and other narcotics aren’t even the deadliest drugs in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that excessive drinking is linked to 88,000 deaths per year (drunk driving crashes, liver cirrhosis, alcohol poisoning, etc). Even still, alcohol isn’t as deadly as tobacco–which is linked to at least 480,000 deaths per year.
To put it frankly, we have a problem. Overdoses are the leading cause of death among those under the age of 50. If you combine the impact of addiction to legal and illegal substances, drug use, including alcohol and tobacco, is–without a doubt–a primary reason people are dying before they should (if not the main reason).
This is a health crisis. And it’s time for the healthcare industry to step up. Here’s why offering doctors more training on addiction can help decrease deaths and improve the possibility of long-term recovery for addicts:
The current situation with training on addiction
As an article in Becker’s Hospital Review notes, “comprehensive addiction training is rare in American medical education.” This includes both diagnostic and communication skills training.
Dr. Timothy Brennan, who works in the Mount Sinai Health System directing an addiction medicine fellowship, says that using the current physician workforce to fight the opioid crisis is akin to “trying to fight World War II with only the Coast Guard.”
Well, that doesn’t sound good at all. In fact, there are over four times more sports medicine fellowships than addiction medicine fellowships in America, according to research published by the New York Times in late 2018. No wonder sports medicine has made incredible advancements, while addiction treatment is struggling to be effective in combating the current crisis.
How better (and more) addiction training can combat the alcohol drug crisis
According to the Center on Addiction, addiction is defined as the following:
“a complex disease, often chronic in nature, which affects the functioning of the brain and body. The most common symptoms of addiction are severe loss of control, continued use despite serious consequences, preoccupation with using, failed attempts to quit, tolerance and withdrawal.”
Given addiction’s complexity, it can be difficult for even highly intelligent physicians to help those afflicted with the disease, especially if they don’t have any experience dealing with friends or family members who suffer from it.
That’s what makes training so necessary. Doctors must develop a greater understanding of the nuances of addiction, such as the potential to relapse–and reasoning for relapse–even after a decade or more of sobriety. They must understand how the brain is altered and made to believe survival depends on the presence of substances in the body. Training should also include expelling myths about addiction and ridding themselves of preconceived notions they may have.
The good news is that addiction medicine is gaining momentum. This has stemmed from a decades-long push by the American Board of Addiction and greater public attention, horrific stories about how addiction has claimed lives, ruined families, and damaged communities.
In June 2018, a bill was passed by the House of Representatives to reimburse education costs for healthcare providers who work in a substance use disorder treatment role for at least one year.
More universities are stepping up their offerings as well. For example, Boston University has developed great courses on how to assess if pain patients are at risk for becoming addicted (many opioid addictions begin with a physical injury). They also have a thriving addiction medicine fellowship.
What it comes down to is that allocating more resources and training doctors on addiction will ensure addicts receive the treatment and support they need to not just detox and stay sober. This will lead to greater survival rates and successful long-term management of their disease.
How hospitals can play a role in addiction training
Many hospitals and healthcare networks are probably overwhelmed by the number of people they’re treating for overdoses and drug and alcohol abuse.
In-house training is a great start to making treatment more effective. Partnering with families and community support groups is a must to ensure patients have the resources they require outside the hospital. Additionally, performing research in combination with drug companies, treatment centers, and universities is beneficial. Finally, hiring doctors with knowledge of addiction medicine is advised.
In the end, it’s a combination of strategies that works best. But it all starts with having healthcare professionals that know how to treat addiction on staff.