We know there’s a stigma attached to drug addiction.
Critics assert that substance-abuse patients are the architects of their own affliction. “They chose to use drugs, and so they got addicted.”
But as medical science now tells us, being enslaved by opioids is not so much a matter of choice but a matter of genetics and environment. Some people are more susceptible to the neurological rewiring that occurs when opioids reach the brain. And addiction often originates from the overuse of legally prescribed pain relievers.
Medical professionals and those in the addiction treatment field are usually first to point to the stigma, noting that it prevents substance-abuse disorder patients from seeking help.
So it came as a shock during this week’s community forum on opioids when keynote speaker Michael Botticelli confirmed that even doctors can hold a bias against those with addiction problems.
“There is quite honestly a cultural attitude in the medical community about not wanting to treat these people,” said Botticelli, executive director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center and former drug czar for the Obama administration. He explained that some doctors simply “don’t want substance-abuse patients in their waiting rooms.
“But the reality,” he said, “is they are already there.”
It follows, of course, that they need treatment.
Botticelli’s remarks came while heaping praise on one of the forum’s panelists, Dr. Holly Alexandre.
“I want to make a point about how exceptional this doctor is,” he said.
As a family health practitioner at Southcoast Physicians Group, Alexandre cares for some 2,700 patients. And because she specializes in addiction services, roughly 200 of her primary-care patients are being treated for opioid-abuse disorders, often with medications that block or blunt the drugs’ effects.
Alexandre said that because she and her team members know the signs and symptoms of opioid-abuse disorder, they sometimes discover an addiction problem during patient screening. And when that happens, patients react with overwhelming relief at finding someone in the medical community who is willing to help them with the problem they have been hiding.
We agree with Botticelli that Alexandre should be commended for her ongoing commitment to fighting opioid addiction. We’re also dismayed that a prejudice still exists among some members of the medical community.
We’re hoping that attitudes will change as all of us become more educated about opioid addiction. If more doctors are trained and ready to treat substance-abuse disorders, it stands to reason that more patients will take the long journey toward recovery.
Alexandre said she is currently the only primary-care doctor at Southcoast Physicians Group who specializes in addiction treatment. But she said the hospital group has hired some new physicians who will be starting in the next year, and some of them will be trained to treat substance-use disorder. Additionally, one of her current roles is reaching out to other primary-care doctors so they can begin treating opioid patients. And her message is convincing.
As she said at Monday night’s opioid forum: “I can’t tell you how many times, you know, in a nice way, a physician will say to me, ‘I don’t know how you do that … I don’t know how you treat those patients.’
“And I just want to look at them and say, ‘Well, I don’t know how you DON’T do that.’”