Opioid Crisis Prompts Medical School Changes

December 1, 2017


It’s been called the deadliest drug crisis in American history and it’s changing the way medical schools train students. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50 – outpacing both guns and car accidents – and opioids alone are driving figures upward at an alarming rate.

Recent research reveals some troubling statistics from sources including the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: 

  • In 2014, nearly 2 million Americans abused or were dependent upon prescription opioids.
  • As many as one in four people who receive prescription opioids long term for non-cancer pain in primary care settings struggles with addiction.
  • In 2015, more than 97 million Americans took prescription painkillers and of them, 12 million did so without being directed by a doctor.
  • Every day, over 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments for misusing prescription opioids.
  • As of this year, opioids contribute nearly 100 deaths a day and the epidemic is proving most deadly for adults in their 20s and early 30s.
  • At current rates, opioids could kill some half a million people nationwide over the next decade.

While much of the issue stems from people using illicit drugs, including heroin and its increasingly troublesome synthetic counterpart, fentanyl, a significant portion of the blame lies with overprescribing of opioids by doctors. Medical schools are responding.

Over the past 15 years, medical schools increasingly are adding lessons, full courses and clinical rotation in drug addiction treatment and pain management, and many schools now include them in their required curriculum. The top goal is to ensure that graduates understand and are able to differentiate between situations wherein an opioid prescription is an appropriate treatment for a pain condition and when there are safer, more effective options. Alternatives may include intravenous versions of non-narcotic pain medications and medical procedures that numb areas of the body experiencing pain.

“I felt more comfortable and confident in myself, knowing not only when to say no but also when to say yes,” Dr. Kevin O’Day, a 2016 graduate from the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine and an internal medicine resident at the university, recently told US News and World Report.

Schools with the most effective addiction training go further than simply teaching students to recognize red flags during patient consultations, but to delve deeper into lifestyle and situational risk factors.

“We have learned how various socio-politico-economic factors go into making and breaking communities of addiction,” said Nadir Bilici, a student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “It has been useful to understand the challenges that patients with drug addiction face beyond receiving clinical treatment.”

As more medical schools follow suit, experts believe the next generation of physicians will be better equipped to help patients avoid or overcome painkiller addictions.

“The future of medicine is going to look very different in very good ways as a consequence of the tragedy that we’re living through,” says Dr. Mishka Terplan, associate director of addiction medicine and professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. 

We here at WOLFPACC applaud progressive efforts by medical schools to help curb the opioid addiction crisis. Find out how we can help you better prepare for the rigors of medical school and your future practice. Call 904-209-3140 to talk with an enrollment specialist today.