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Why Medical Students Must Start Learning More About Substance Use Disorders

Jun 10, 2020

Preparing medical students for what they will face on the job is the entire mission of medical school, yet substance use disorders (SUDs) may not get equal attention during those critically important years. It’s inevitable that medical students—who will eventually work in virtually every area of medicine—will encounter a need for broader addiction knowledge than they received in med school. Today let’s look at how the insufficient focus on addiction before their careers begin can be detrimental to their work and why greater understanding of all types of addiction is needed.

While it’s routine for medical students to learn about addiction during their education and training period, most are typically limited to a short list of substances, including alcohol and opioids. Med students who are given a larger baseline of understanding of substance use disorders (SUDs) early can better serve their patients in the future. The advantages of comprehensive SUD training during medical school include seeing connections to other medical conditions more quickly, evaluating patients more accurately, offering safer alternatives to patients with a known addiction, and spotting problem behaviors in patients who may be “doctor shopping” or using their prescriptions in an off-label manner. 

Comprehensive substance use disorder knowledge will help every med student.

Due to the high frequency of SUDs, it’s inevitable a physician will encounter patients regularly with some form of substance use disorder. While knowledge of the warning signs of opioid and alcohol dependence may become familiar through medical school training, medical school students learning about all types of SUDs will be better prepared to identify, treat, and make referrals to treatment services for patients who exhibit signs of addiction without revealing it intentionally during their appointments.

Knowledge of SUDs prepares med students to see connections to other medical conditions.

Substance use disorders are not isolated phenomena. They may contribute to medical conditions, including chronic illnesses. Becoming aware of the links between addiction to marijuana, cocaine, and other substances can better inform a medical student about what to look for in future patients.

Knowledge of SUDs prepares a med student for evaluating patients more accurately.

A med student may eventually see patients whose SUD affects physical aspects of their life, such pain tolerance. In this case, tolerance to pain may appear to be very high at times or may differ depending on whether they have been using drugs or alcohol prior to their evaluation.

Knowledge of SUDs prepares a med student to offer safer alternatives to patients who may be dependent on certain medications.

Being able to assess a patient’s risk of developing an SUD or exacerbate an existing SUD with a new medication is essential in helping the patient restore their health and well-being effectively. A past addiction to painkillers, for example, might not be revealed directly by a patient so the med student must be prepared to be vigilant about gathering information that will lead to these types of valuable discoveries.

Knowledge of SUDs prepares a med student to spot problem behaviors.

Med students will eventually see patients whose behavior changes related to a developing addiction. This may include patients who are “doctor shopping” for meds, making appointments more frequently than necessary, or requesting specific medications that aren’t suitable for their diagnosis.

Knowledge of SUDs begins building the baseline of information about substance use that can grow exponentially after med school.

While knowledge of opioid use developed in med school will prepare a med student to respond to opioid dependence in their practice, a missing baseline in other substance use forces med students to learn on the job in the future at a time when their critical thinking in providing life-saving and life-enhancing solutions is urgently needed. Beginning their training in the threat of dependence on substances other than just alcohol and opioids during medical school gives them an advantage as frontline healthcare professionals later.

SUDs affect everyone.

Med students will encounter patients who are affected by substance use disorder, even if it’s not their own. These will be patients who are negatively impacted by an SUD in someone they know, work with, or love. They may seek guidance on addiction from their physician and an informed physician equipped with extensive SUD knowledge will be able to provide the support, understanding, and direction needed.

Hanley Center – A Path to Recovery

Hanley Center is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety. For information on our programs, call us today: 844-501-4673.

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