Harvard Med Students Demand Training on Opioid Addiction

By Zachary Siegel 05/19/16

“There’s a cultural problem to address, a stigma about addiction. The doctors who are teaching us medicine have not gotten this education.” 

Harvard Med Students Demand Training on Opioid Addiction
via Michael Dykstra

Students at Harvard Medical School are teaching themselves how to treat opioid addiction, citing their current coursework as lacking on the subject, according to STAT News.  

So far, Harvard students have launched an awareness campaign to aid in the expanding use of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an overdose. They have also taken it upon themselves to be trained in the use of medication to treat opioid dependence, one of the only areas of medicine in which the use of medication carries stigma

According to STAT, Harvard Med’s life support class did not cover the use of naloxone, prompting students from the Center for Primary Care to launch their own training. As an experiment, the students visited local pharmacies asking whether the pharmacist would sell them naloxone over-the-counter. 

The results were hit and miss.“We were the first people to ask. Pharmacists didn’t know what to do,” Siva Sundaram, a Harvard Medical student, told STAT. Others reported that pharmacies had limited doses, and were reserving them for people who were truly in an emergency situation. 

In the Facebook group White Coats for Recovery, students who purchased naloxone posted a group photo of themselves holding the lifesaving drug.

In addition to advocating for naloxone, fourth-year Harvard Med student John Weems organized training sessions on how to use buprenorphine, often referred to by its brand name, Suboxone, to treat opioid dependence. Despite this drug’s proven effectiveness at reducing overdose mortality, cravings, and illicit opioid use, there is a shortage of doctors who can prescribe it, and even fewer treatment centers that utilize it.

Photo via Michael Dykstra 

Weems and several of his fellow students from nearby medical schools make up part of the Student Coalition on Addiction. Their main objective is to identify and fill gaps in medical school curricula. 

While the students argue the need for medical interventions specific to addiction, they also say there needs to be a broader cultural change, so doctors understand addiction as a complex illness, outside the boundaries of moralist frameworks. 

“There’s a cultural problem to address, a stigma about addiction,” said Katrina Ciraldo, a graduate from Boston University’s medical school. “The doctors who are teaching us medicine have not gotten this education.” 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.