JACKSON, Mississippi. The New York Times reports that many medical school students may not be getting the education on addiction treatment they may need, given the current opioid crisis. Part of the problem revolves around a failure to help doctors have tough conversations when they encounter patients showing signs of addiction issues. For example, the Times reports that doctors often have to find a delicate balance between treating a patient's chronic pain and identifying the early stages of addiction. In fact, the Times reports that doctors across medical specialties often encounter patients who may be in the early stages of opioid dependence. Yet, many of these doctors have never been properly trained about what to do when they encounter these patients.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2017 alone. Among those deaths, the greatest increase has been linked to the abuse of fentanyl. This drug is most dangerous when it is mixed with other street drugs. Despite the fact that thousands in the U.S. die each year due to addiction and overdose, addiction medicine remains a field that has been little studied and is little promoted in medical school. Because the field of addiction treatment and addiction medicine is just starting to be studied, there aren't many professors or mentors available for doctors with an interest in the specialty. To make matters more complicated, insurance companies may not always reimburse doctors for addiction treatment in the same way they reimburse them when they prescribe pills or opioids.
And yet, it seems that finally the tide is turning. More doctors are expressing an interest in understanding how to better treat addicted patients. When it comes to addiction treatment, the road to recovery is not always linear. Patients often relapse. Sometimes they need maintenance medication because they are genuinely suffering from pain. The field leaves doctors with ambiguous calls to make. In a field where black and white calls can protect doctors from medical malpractice claims, it becomes clear why some doctors are nervous about treating addicted patients.
Yet, not treating patients has risks, too. These patients may be overprescribed drugs that they do not need. Primary care physicians are seen as the first line of defense and the first line where treatment can occur.
The cost of recovery from opioid addiction can be quite high. Patients may resort to facilities or other treatment programs where the outcomes may not be studied scientifically. This treatment can be expensive. Insurance companies may not always cover the cost.
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