FINDING HOPE: How new medical students can help combat the opioid epidemic

Posted at 1:59 PM, Jun 04, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-05 12:22:55-04

This fall, 162 students will walk through the doors of Idaho's first medical school and one big area of focus for their modern curriculum is prescription practices, aiming to improve education on addictive side effects and available alternatives to prescription opioids.

Dr. Robert Hasty, the dean of Idaho's new College of Osteopathic Medicine, or ICOM, knows the next generation of physicians in the U.S. can play a major role in combating the opioid epidemic.

"When I went to medical school we didn't really have any appreciation of how addictive these opioid prescriptions could be," Dr. Hasty said. "We will really make a big difference in the opioid crisis."

According to the CDC, for every 100 people in Ada County, there are 72 opioid prescriptions. In Canyon County, it's 76, and in more rural counties like Caribou, Cassia, Bannock and Bear Lake, the number of prescriptions outnumbers the population.

"Patients used to get opioids from their physician without a lot of explanation in many cases," state epidemiologist with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Dr. Christine Hahn said. "When I was in medical training, the one thing that we were really taught was that if someone is truly in pain there's no risk, or very little risk, that they could ever get addicted to that medication, and now we know that was not true."

So newly enrolled students at ICOM will be learning under the most up-to-date federal guidelines when it comes to prescribing practices, even doing mock medical appointments with actors, training students to spot patients who are prescription shopping from doctor to doctor.

Instead of focusing on Pharmacology as its traditionally applied, students will also learn the psycho-social aspects of drug application as it relates to drug addiction and dependence.

"We'll be educating our students on how to counsel their patients on the potential risks associated with drug dependence and drug addiction," ICOM Chair of Pharmacology Dr. Luke Mortensen said. 

Students will also learn about alternatives to opioids to treat chronic pain. "Such as steroidal or non-steroidal anti-inflamatories. Certain drugs in the anti-depressant class have also shown very useful now in certain chronic pain syndromes," Dr. Mortensen said.

"There's all sorts of things out there that these young doctors are learning," Dr. Hahn said, "Things like physical therapy, heat and cold, acupuncture."

Classes at ICOM start this August.