They come from some of our country's most prestigious med schools. Harvard, Tufts and Boston University, as well as the University of Massachusetts. They also came of age in the Era of Opioids. Is it any wonder why this spring's graduating class of doctors will be among the first fully trained to recognize and treat addiction?
They're being called the Addiction Doctors. No, addiction isn't all they treat. But they don't shy away from treating it either. In fact, this new breed of docs relishes the opportunity. Then again, having first-hand experience with the ravages of addiction does tend to put a little fuel in your fire.
And this year's crop of graduating docs is indeed fired up.
Take Siva Sundaram. The soon-to-be doc got his first lesson in addiction when he was working at a wilderness program for teenagers who suffered from substance use disorders. It was there Sundaram came to realize the kids were pretty much just like him. They all struggled with the same problems of identity, peer pressure, and independence. Sundaram also came to conclude that people with addiction are no different from those with other illnesses.
That insight served him well when he arrived at Harvard Medical School in 2015. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker had just called on the state’s four medical schools to ensure their curriculums addressed pain medications and addiction treatment. And the ground was shifting in medical education.
Sundaram and other students from all four medical schools proved central to that addiction-fighting effort. They advocated for addiction treatment improvements. And they helped revise the substance abuse curriculums.
This new class also showed they were ready, willing and eager to go where there predecessors hadn't really gone before.
"Medical schools historically regarded addiction as someone else’s problem," Sundaram told The Boston Globe. "[They didn't considerate it] the job of medicine."
"My generation of [med school] students feels a great sense of opportunity to do things better," he added.
Next Class of Addiction Doctors
Siva Sundaram is now heading to a residency in psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. But he's hardly the only new med school grad to be engaged in this enlightening new addiction-battling initiative.
There's also Jamie Lim over at Boston University. Lim graduates this year. And he'll be staying in Boston for his pediatrics residency.
"I feel like I learned medicine through the lens of addiction," said Lim. "Addiction really teaches you to be nonjudgmental, very forgiving, and makes you aware of a lot of social determinants of health."
This education wasn't done in a vacuum either.
"We see people struggling with these [substance use] disorders on a day-to-day basis — on the street and in the hospital," said Lim. So you might say they were fully prepared to advance this new addiction treatment outlook.
And advance they did. The governor had already tasked the state's four medical school with developing a set of "core competencies" in pain and addiction. Members of a student coalition volunteered to comb through the curriculums and identify the gaps.
"Students have been key partners," said Dr. Melissa Fischer, associate dean for medical education at UMass. "They’re great advocates for their patients."
"It gives me great hope for the future," she adds.
Sundaram and his colleagues noticed that students traditionally received thorough lessons in how to prescribe drugs for diabetes and heart disease, but learned little or nothing about Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT). He his colleagues set out to change that.
Of course it helped to have some friends in high places. In addition to Governor Baker, they got on close terms with Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Monica Bharel. And Dr. Bharel was all about the addiction initiative.
"When I graduated from medical school," said Dr. Bharel, "I was prepared to care for individuals with diabetes or high blood pressure. My goal is to do the same for addiction."
For Doctors: Addiction is a Given
No matter what specialty a doctor chooses, he or she will encounter patients with addiction, said Dr. Daniel Alford. Alford is BU's Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education, so he should know. He also knows that careers will be made on the way they handle those encounters.
"Addiction is such a common problem," he said. “It’s going to impact the work you do."
The best way to ensure positive encounters of course is to school all our doctors in addiction. In fact, SAMSHA's Dr. Elinore F. McCance-Katz wants to go even further.
"With an illness as prevalent as opioid use disorder and the devastation it’s having on American families," she said, "all health care professionals should be trained in assessment and treatment."
We at Recovery Boot Camp couldn't agree more. Then again, our staff is fully trained in addiction assessment and treatment. So yeah, we know a thing or two about what educated health professionals can do. And we can't wait to see what this new wave of addiction doctors does -- for everyone.