Exploring the Lack of Addiction Medicine Education in American Medical Schools

A physician speaking with a woman

Although more than 10 percent of the U.S. population deals with an addiction, and addiction is a leading cause of death for U.S. adults, most medical schools do not teach students how to address addiction. In addition to those diagnosed with an addiction, another 20 percent of the population has risky drug or alcohol use that impacts their health. Still, doctors are mostly unprepared to deal with any of these complications.

Without adequate training, doctors simply do not have the expertise required to help their patients deal with the physical, mental and emotional effects of addiction. Many times, these situations are complex and require a great deal of sensitivity to handle well. Doctors need proper training to know the best ways to approach, question and help patients.

A few hospitals have begun to offer fellowships and training programs in addiction medicine, but these are a drop in the bucket and leave the vast majority of doctors untrained to deal with problems of addiction. Though doctors may attempt to treat addiction in the same way as any other medical problem, addiction cannot be effectively treated in the same way as medical problems like high blood pressure or diabetes.

Special Needs of Patients With Addiction

Confronting a person with a substance use disorder is not always effective. Many patients will deny that they have a problem, even when presented with evidence, like blood test results, that reveal substance misuse. It can be a better approach to ask open-ended questions that bring patients to the conclusion that they may have a problem. Addiction medicine teaches techniques like motivational interviewing, which can work well to address addiction.

A doctor speaking with a patient

Doctors need training in addiction medicine to be effective with their patients.

Doctors may be able to refer patients with addictions to more intensive drug addiction treatment, but without training, they might not have enough knowledge about what kind of treatment options exist and how to get patients into treatment when they are resistant.

Another need for many patients with a substance use disorder is ongoing support and monitoring. Even after treatment has ended, the risk of a recurrence of substance use remains high. Primary care doctors can be the first line of defense in detecting a recurrence of use and offering further treatment before the situation goes too far or even turns deadly. Many lives can be saved if primary care doctors are properly trained to recognize the signs of a substance use disorder and intervene in useful ways.

Legislation in some areas has attempted to address the dearth of addiction medicine training with tuition reimbursement and student loan forgiveness programs for doctors who participate. The more doctors know about addiction medicine, the better they may be able to treat all their patients, including those who have substance use disorders.

Getting Help Now

If you are a doctor with patients looking for Colorado addiction treatment resources or are a patient in need of treatment for substance use disorder, contact The Recovery Village Palmer Lake to discuss admissions and treatment options available.

Exploring the Lack of Addiction Medicine Education in American Medical Schools
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