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As published in USA Today: How Specialization in Addiction Medicine Can Save Lives

by | August 8, 2019

Many people wonder why I decided to specialize in addiction medicine. The answer is simple: It is unbelievably rewarding to help people in despair recover and live purposeful lives.

Take Ben, for example. Ben experienced significant trauma in childhood and later sought relief in heroin and cocaine. He came to me at a moment of shame, distress and doubt. His boss had fired him, his family had rejected him and he was living in a shelter. After completing an assessment, I told Ben he was suffering from a chronic disease called addiction. My team and I started him with medication and counseling, signed him up for health insurance and helped him find housing. Five years later, Ben is working, reunited with his family and living in his own home. He still comes to see me monthly, sharing his health challenges and successes.

Power of treatment

I’ve cared for hundreds of men and women like Ben over the years. Some have tragically succumbed to their addiction. Many more have responded well to treatment, often surprising themselves and loved ones in the process. Every day when I go to work, I see the power of addiction medicine to save and improve lives.

Just like surgeons have trained to operate in case of appendicitis, addiction-medicine specialists prepare to help people with the disease of addiction. We understand that addiction is a brain disease and not a moral failing. We treat this condition with medications and care that is delivered with empathy and compassion. Our goal is to help patients live the lives they want for themselves. Addiction treatment may not look the same for everyone, but medical intervention is essential to recovery.

Qualified workforce

Now, more than ever, having a qualified workforce to treat addiction is critical. Opioid addiction takes too many lives, methamphetamine use is rising, and tobacco and alcohol continue to be high drivers of mortality. Physicians and healthcare practitioners in every field need addiction training. The American Board of Preventive Medicine certifies physicians in addiction medicine. If they are not going to become specialists themselves, at the very least, they need to understand this chronic disease and treat their patients with addiction with dignity and respect. They also need to know how to connect patients with resources such as SAMHSA’s Treatment Locator.  Every medical setting in the country encounters addiction; now is the time for patients to get help and the medical community to give it.

- Yngvild Olsen, MD, MPH, DFASAM