Med ed spotlight

CUSOM launches medical curriculum to fight nation’s opioid epidemic

Students will learn the biochemistry of opiates and the effectiveness of non-opioid medications for treating chronic pain.

Editor’s note: A longer version of this article was originally published by Campbell University Magazine.

Campbell University Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine (CUSOM) in Buies Creek, North Carolina, launched its Opioid Abuse and Drug Abuse Curriculum in January in response to the nation’s epidemic that kills an average of 78 Americans each day.

North Carolina is home to four of the Top 20 cities in the United States for highest rate of opioid abuse—No. 1 Wilmington, No. 5 Hickory, No. 12 Jacksonville and No. 18 Fayetteville—according to a 2016 study by Castlight Health Inc., a nonprofit health care information company. In 2015 alone, prescription opioids like hydrocodone (used by doctors to treat pain) and illicit drugs like heroin and illegally manufactured pills claimed more than 1,200 lives in North Carolina—an increase of 400% from 15 years earlier.

Fighting the epidemic with education

Under the direction of Jim Powers, DO, associate dean for clinical integration and professor of emergency medicine, Campbell Med’s opioid curriculum, which will be taught to all COM students, is designed to educate the next generation of physicians on the dangers and benefits of opioids as well as alternative treatments for pain management. The curriculum provides practical guidance in screening pain patients for substance abuse disorder and will help future doctors identify when patients are abusing their medications.

“Studies have shown that even brief interventions by primary care providers have proven effective in reducing or eliminating substance abuse by people who abuse drugs but are not yet addicted to them,” says Dr. Powers.

The first step in fighting the epidemic is education, says CUSOM Dean John Kauffman, DO.

“Unless we’re training physicians who understand opioid dependence and how a patient goes down the path of addiction, we can’t effectively treat that patient,” he says.

In the new curriculum, CUSOM students will come away with an understanding of the biochemistry and pharmacology of opiates and the effectiveness of non-opioid medications for treating chronic pain. Students will also learn the art of “motivational interviewing”—engaging the patient and encouraging them to change behaviors by helping them explore what motivates them most.

“With motivational interviewing, the physician focuses on the patient’s desire to change,” says Nicholas Pennings, DO, an assistant professor of family medicine. “This technique helps the patient communicate their desire, and the physician builds upon that.”

‘Treat the person, not the condition’

The more schools that make opioids and pain management a bigger part of their curriculum, the fewer patients will become addicted, Dr. Kauffman says. Education will be key to reversing the cultural mindset that “there’s a pill for everything.”

“People come to the doctor, and they’re looking for a pill that will take away all the pain or a pill that will allow them to lose weight,” Dr. Kauffman says. “We’re teaching our students to treat the person, not the condition. It’s about taking the time to educate our patients, telling them there may always be a level of pain, but it does little good to simply mask it.”

CUSOM graduates its first class of doctors in May. Many graduates will practice in some of North Carolina’s and the surrounding region’s most medically underserved areas.

“Campbell is a critical player,” says Barbara Walker, DO, a former Campbell trustee. “Especially with its location. We’re surrounded by areas that haven’t had good health care—if any at all—for generations. And if these students can take what they’ve learned about pain management and change the way pain is treated in North Carolina, Campbell graduates will be vital in the state’s fight against opioid addiction.”

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