Opinion: Preparing nurses to better care for patients with addictions

published on July 29, 2016 by Cheyenne Johnson in The Vancouver Sun

Every day in BC, there are an average of two deaths from preventable drug overdoses. Countless citizens are struggling to use less, to not use, or to hide their substance use, whether it is drugs or alcohol, from their families and employers.

The prevailing belief in our society has been addiction impacts mainly the disadvantaged, and is an issue of morality or values. I can tell you from my experience, this is far from true. I am an addiction nurse at St. Paul’s Hospital. I see first-hand the impact of addictions on patients, families, and the health care system.

Over the last decade, evidence-based research has significantly advanced our understanding of the biology of addiction, and established addiction is a chronic and relapsing disease of the brain resulting from the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain’s reward and control circuitries. There are also genetic and other factors that make it more likely for some individuals to develop this disorder than others. These advances have wildly impacted both our understanding of addiction as a medical condition and have changed our approach to addiction treatment, with the development of new medications and treatment interventions. But how our medical professionals receive training to recognize and treat this disease has been slow to catch up.

Nurses are often on the front lines of the health care system and typically spend the most time with patients and families. But, when we look at nurses currently in practice and those undergoing training, they are largely underprepared to address the specific needs of patients and families struggling with addiction. Those who do have these skills acquired them over many years of practice and there is a great deal of variance between service providers and jurisdictions in the quality of addiction treatment. The same can also be said for primary care physicians and other allied health professions. There simply has not been routine training to identify and treat addictions in clinical practice.

Fortunately, thanks to the support of the provincial government, BC is at the forefront in terms of affecting positive change in how addictions treatment will be incorporated into the health care system, including how nurses and allied health care professions are trained.

St. Paul’s Hospital is home to global leaders in addiction medicine research, education and care and has been a driving force in changing the conversation in medical professions around addiction and promoting it as a specialized area of medicine that requires focused training.

In 2013, with support from the provincial government,local mining company Goldcorp, and donors to St. Paul’s Foundation, the St. Paul’s Hospital Goldcorp Addiction Medicine Fellowship program was created. This training program provides specialized medical knowledge to support the best evidence-based medical treatment of addictions. I was fortunate to be one of the first graduating nursing fellows in the program. What I learned was invaluable to how I can provide better care to my patients.

View the full article