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Nursing schools across country work to combat the opioid epidemic

Photo illustration. Though opioid abuse rates are highest in people aged 18 to 25, colleges often do not have permanent funding to address it.

Photo illustration. Though opioid abuse rates are highest in people aged 18 to 25, colleges often do not have permanent funding to address it.

In light of the growing national opioid epidemic, several nursing schools are taking steps to prepare nurses to combat the evolving medical challenges presented by opioid misuse.

Schools such as the University of Pennsylvania and Marymount University have taken major steps to prepare nurses for how to care for patients who struggle with opioid misuse.

Peggy Compton has only been a nursing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school for one year but is already partnering up with Heath Schmidt, a nursing professor at the university, to teach an undergraduate class, Opioids: From Receptors to Epidemic, in the fall.

“We hope to have a very interdisciplinary student cohort, with students from policy, students who won’t necessarily be health professionals, students in anthropology, who knows," Compton said. "We wanted to open it up to everybody to make it not just nursing specific. Our hope is that we can have students who can attack this issue from all different levels.”

Compton said the classes were introduced in part because there has been inadequate training for nurses across the country in how to treat chronic pain and how to treat addiction.

“We’ve been sending nurses and nurse practitioners out there with very little training. It hasn’t really been part of the board exams, and it’s taken this opioid crisis to say ‘wait a minute, we need to see more in our curriculums around this,'" she said. "Addiction was something that was taught off to the side, it wasn’t really mainstreamed as a real disease as we’re appreciating it is now."

Other schools have taken different approaches to doing their part in tackling the epidemic.

East Carolina University began admissions in fall 2017 for their Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program, which aims to prepare professional nurses in safe practices in providing psychiatric and mental health services.

As opposed to the University of Pennsylvania's additional undergraduate courses, ECU’s program is for advanced, practiced nurses in the field. The program aims to teach prevention methods regarding opioids, as well as how to safely detox from both an inpatient and outpatient setting, according to Wanda Lancaster, director of the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program.

“While we don’t offer a particular track for substance abuse, it’s integrated into our curriculum, and we do have several students who plan to focus on substance abuse disorders upon graduation.” Lancaster said. “I think you will begin to see more specialized tracks that will focus on whatever mental health or substance use crisis is going on.”

ECU’s program is not currently accepting out-of-state applications because of the severe shortage in psychiatric providers and nurse practitioners in North Carolina.

Lancaster cited the shortage as a major reason why nurse practitioner programs are opening around the state.

“Nurse practitioners are up and coming because we have a mental health and substance abuse crisis," she said. "There are 100 counties in North Carolina, and in 30 of those counties there is not even a psychiatrist, and in 60 of the counties there isn’t a psychiatric nurse practitioner, so you ask yourself, ‘who is doing the work?’"

In 2016, there were 1,510 opioid overdose deaths, costing the state $20 billion.

“We have a really ominous challenge in North Carolina,” Lancaster concluded.


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