IHP, Harvard Medical School Students Get a Primer on the Opioid Epidemic

April 20, 2016


Opioid training

BU Medical Center Assistant Professor of Medicine Dr. Alexander Walley (far right) discusses the opioid epidemic with seminar participants, who include IHP nurse practitioner student Victoria Hill (left center) and Harvard Medical School student John Weese (right center).

Meredith Smith was in high school when she saw her older brother almost overdose. Her brother is in recovery now but like many people in her position, Smith worries that her brother may always struggle with addiction.

Smith recently joined several dozen other students, faculty, and staff to learn about the recent surge in opioid-related deaths and how health professionals can help reverse the trend. “This issue is both personal and professional for me,” says the first-year Master of Science in Nursing student, “but it affects everyone. There are no boundaries.”

The presentation by Alexander Walley, MD, MSc, assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, provided naloxone rescue training as part of an overall overdose prevention strategy. Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, is a medication long used by emergency responders to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Victoria Hill had seen the addiction crisis unfolding around her and wanted to do something, so she helped organize the event “Just taking public transportation or walking home, I see people who are clearly using substances,” says the second-year Master of Science in Nursing student. “People walk right past them. It bothers me, but on the other hand, I’m not sure what else they could do.”

In 2000, 338 people in Massachusetts died from opioid overdose. By 2014, that number jumped to 1,099—more than three times as many as in 2000. And for every death, hundreds more people are hospitalized. Between 2007 and 2014, the number of opioid-related visits in Massachusetts increased from 31,000 to 57,000.

Collaboration with Harvard Medical School

Hill and members of the Student Leadership Committee at the Harvard Medical School Center for Primary Care organized the campus event. “Our goal is to bring students of different backgrounds and practices together,” says Hill, noting it  attracted a mix of Harvard medical students and undergrads as well as Institute students in occupational therapy, physician assistant (PA), and in both the bachelor’s and master’s in nursing programs.

“Medical students are not exposed to this issue early in their education,” says John Weems, a Harvard medical student and event co-organizer. “Typically, a medical student’s first encounter with addiction is seeing someone in the worst stages.” These two factors, a lack of preparation and the stark reality of advanced disease reinforce stereotypes about people with addiction.

Attendees like first-year nurse practitioner student Deneisha Lindsay want to make sure they will be ready to help patients. “I’m on the pediatric track, so I’ll be working with adolescents,” she says. “I know the epidemic is serious in this population so I want to educate myself.”

Having seen addiction’s insidious effect on several of her relatives, first-year occupational therapy student Jacquelyn Westby considers it vital for OTs to know how to work with people struggling with addiction. “This is a large piece of how we, as OT professionals, can reach clients and their families,” she says.

School of Nursing Instructor Amy Fuller considers it extremely important for nursing students to learn about the current epidemic. “Every one of them is going to be prescribing,” she says, noting that all students and clinicians need to stay abreast of changing laws such as one recently signed into law by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker that limits first-time opioid prescriptions to seven days.

Whether they act as healers or educators, Dr. Walley says that health professionals from all disciplines are a key lifeline for people with addiction. “Physicians have a limited amount of time to spend with patients,” says Walley. “Whether it’s a nurse or  a PA doing medication reconciliation, or occupational or physical therapist on a home visit, other health professionals often know more about what is going on with a patient “They have more opportunities to catch a potential addiction issue.”

The Institute’s Schwartz Center Educational Rounds, also held this spring, included nursing, physician assistant, and speech-language pathology students who presented: "Caring For Patients with a Substance Abuse Disorder".

- By Joanne Barker