The University of New England has landed a three-year, $450,000 federal grant to train medical students to treat opioid use disorders.

The lack of medical school training on the topic has long been considered a gap in the medical system, as Maine and the nation continue to grapple with the opioid crisis.

Starting this year, fourth-year medical students will have the option of taking the classes in administering medication-assisted treatment combined with counseling. For the 2020-21 school year, it will become a graduation requirement for medical students. Students will graduate with the federal licensing required to begin treating patients. The University of New England typically graduates about 175 medical students per year.

Medication-assisted treatment plus therapy is considered the “gold standard” of treatment for opioid use disorder. The medications – including Suboxone and methadone – work by curbing cravings for opioids.

“Nationally, a wide chasm exists between the estimated 2.5 million people needing treatment for opioid use disorders and qualified providers willing to offer the necessary care,” Jenifer Van Deusen, an inter-professional education coordinator at the University of New England, said in a statement.

In Maine, 354 people died of drug overdoses in 2018. That is historically high, but down from the record 417 overdose deaths in 2017.

Maine implemented Medicaid expansion in January, which has given more patients access to substance use treatment. Through June, 2,741 patients in the Medicaid expansion population had received treatment for opioid use disorder. But to give patients timely access to treatment, there need to be enough doctors and nurse practitioners licensed and willing to prescribe Suboxone to meet the demand, experts say.

While Maine has boosted the number of physicians and nurse practitioners with federal licenses to prescribe Suboxone – from about 500 a few years ago to 880 in 2019 – experts say there’s still a need to have as many as possible licensed to prescribe. At Tufts University’s Maine Track program – where medical students split time between Tufts and Maine Medical Center – substance use disorder treatment also is part of the curriculum.

“The opioid epidemic is the worst public health crisis I’ve seen in my adult life, and we need an all-hands-on-deck effort to fight back,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent. “Addiction is not a death sentence – treatment works. Unfortunately, we just don’t have enough treatment professionals.”

Dr. Selma Holden, assistant clinical professor at the University of New England’s medical school, said the program means more doctors are “likely to provide this needed treatment in their future practice.”

“Receiving this training as part of a physician’s formal education, including the opportunity to treat patients under supervision, can result in greater awareness and understanding of substance use disorder,” Holden said.

 

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