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Preparing our Doctors to Face the Opioid Epidemic Head-On

Dr-Irving-8.jpgYou rely on your primary care provider as your partner. To meet your needs, these physicians and other providers must be prepared for a variety of health and wellness challenges.
 
At Northern Light Health, we’re preparing tomorrow’s primary care physicians with the skills they’ll need to assist in care for opioid use disorder through our Family Medicine Residency Program.
 
“Family physicians are uniquely qualified to assist in caring for this disease because they’re thinking about what’s best for the patient holistically,” says Sarah Irving, MD, FAAP, the program director for the Northern Light Family Medicine Residency Program at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center. “Our goal is to ensure the residents who graduate from our program are able to partner with their patients to help them successfully manage, and ultimately recover from, this disease.”

To further that commitment, Northern Light Health is on the forefront with training our medical residents in opioid prescribing protocols, as well as medication-assisted treatment (MAT). MAT is a treatment method that pairs medication such as buprenorphine to manage withdrawal symptoms with counseling and behavioral therapy.
 
“We’re all aware of this crisis that’s plaguing our country,” Dr. Irving says. “It’s critical our graduates are able to help address it, but that they’re doing so in a way that integrates behavioral health.”
 
Historically, primary care physicians—particularly in rural communities with less access to behavioral health services—have been hesitant to participate in MAT. However, with as many as 170 family medicine patients at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center being treated with MAT at any given time, there’s a need to expand access to the concept throughout the state.
 
According to Dr. Irving, 100 percent of residents graduating from the program are qualified and prepared to obtain the necessary credentials to be MAT prescribers. The hope is residents will remain in Maine and increase the availability of MAT, and quality primary care in general, for patients with substance use disorders. 
 
It’s important to note, however, that primary care by itself is not a substitute for a treatment clinic. The patient’s primary care provider is one piece of the treatment puzzle. Counselors, social workers, and other clinicians also play important roles in MAT. Still, involving the family physician in the treatment plan allows for more integrated and coordinated care.
 
“Our patients don’t wake up one day and decide to be a drug addict,” Dr. Irving explains. “These patients need help, and family physicians understand their individual needs, the situation with their home life, and their stressors. They have more insight into what is driving these behaviors, so they can really work with the patient on modifying those behaviors.”
 
It’s a similar approach to other chronic conditions and illnesses.
 
“There’s no stigma here. We treat opioid dependency the same way we treat diabetes,” Dr. Irving says. “It’s an illness, but it’s one that requires behavioral change, and that change can be hard. But your doctor can help you create a healthier life.”