Your Doctor May not Know How to Treat Addiction

If you suspect you have a drug addiction problem, the first advice generally given is that you should consult your doctor. But will he or she know how to deal with your issue? PBS News Hour reports that many doctors are woefully ill-informed regarding drug addiction and its treatment. One new graduate says that only one class in his lecture curriculum dealt with addiction medicine, and he missed that lecture. This didn’t harm his final results: “I wasn’t tested on it,” he says.

With America currently struggling with an unprecedented amount of opioid addiction and overdose cases, this is a disturbing state of affairs. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse agrees. Despite the growing toll that opioids are taking on society, only a few hours in the four-year general practitioners’ curriculum are devoted to addiction medicine.

Medical Schools Slow to Respond

An increased emphasis on the treatment of drug overdoses and addiction is clearly needed, but most medical schools have been slow to adjust their curricula. Harvard medical students have even begun extra-curricular training programs outside of formal learning so that they can gain an understanding of how to treat overdoses and addictions.

Stanford has been among the first to adapt to the need for an increased focus on substance abuse and addiction. A module specifically targeting this field is being added to the formal curriculum.

Vice or disease?

Conservatism on the part of medical faculties is based on the perception that addiction is purely a vice, rather than an illness. An interesting conclusion given the thousands of Americans who have acquired their “vice” through doctor’s prescriptions. A Harvard academic told PBS that curing addiction is simply a matter of positive thinking and personal resolve. While there is no doubt that these elements are important in overcoming addiction, this view on the part of a medical expert seems astoundingly shallow and makes no allowance for physical dependency.

Recognition from The American Board of Medical Specialties

Fortunately, the entire medical profession is not affected by ignorance regarding addiction medicine. The importance of this sub-field has finally been recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties, and it is now possible for doctors to become bona fide specialists in this field.

Nevertheless, widespread ignorance of the mechanisms that cause addiction and the process needed to overcome its physical effects is rife in the medical community. Unless qualified doctors have been interested enough in addiction medicine to pursue their own enquiries and inform themselves, it’s quite possible that the only advice a doctor may give is that a patient should “choose” to quit. The possible negative effects of this ignorance cannot be underestimated.

Advice for those seeking medical help for addiction

There are only 1,200 physicians in the US with certificates in addiction medicine. There are also psychiatrists who have been recognized by the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatrists. If your home doctor’s advice on addiction does not seem to be constructive, it would be best to consult one of these trained professionals.

It’s also possible to find SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) certified treatment facilities that will place professionals at your disposal for counselling and advice. It is important to look out for this accreditation, since not many addiction treatment facilities are run in accordance with this gold standard. Regretfully, the importance of regarding addiction treatment as a serious healthcare issue for which certification is mandatory has not yet sunk in. It seems likely that with a growing middle-class drug dependency rate, change will come, but at time of writing, certification for treatment centers remains voluntary.

It’s time America took addiction seriously

The shocking amount of ignorance and misinformation regarding addiction as a physical and psychological condition extends to the medical profession. This dangerous state of affairs could be contributing to the drug mortality rate, and it is more than ironic that addiction is still widely regarded as a personal choice by the very doctors who may have contributed to the problem through reckless prescription of opioid painkillers.

Addiction has never been a problem that only affects society’s “dropouts” and those who made “bad choices”, and even when it is, doctors should be ready to help people reclaim their lives when they reach out for help. Sadly, this help may not be forthcoming, but that does not mean it is not available. Certified medical professionals and treatment facilities exist, though they may be rarer than we would like them to be.

For addicts and their families the message is clear: getting help is vital. It may be necessary to go beyond your general practitioner to find it, but since intervention may save lives, it’s an effort well worth making.

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