BIDDEFORD — The University of New England has received a federal grant to train medical students to treat opioid use disorders. Students will learn to use FDA-approved medications in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies. This approach to treatment, known as Medication-Assisted Treatment, or MAT, has been scientifically proven as the best practice in treating opioid use disorders.

The UNE College of Osteopathic Medicine was awarded a $450,000, three-year grant from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to adopt a national model for training students that is currently in development. This model will provide the necessary training to medical students prior to graduation, so they can receive their license to treat patients as soon as they begin their medical residencies.

“The opioid epidemic is the worst public health crisis I’ve seen in my adult life, and we need an all-hands-on-deck effort to fight back,” said Senator Angus King, I-Maine. “Addiction is not a death sentence — treatment works. Unfortunately, we just don’t have enough treatment professionals. This grant will allow UNE to bolster our ability to help Maine people reaching out for support, allowing those struggling with substance use disorders to access the proven treatment techniques that can help them face their disease, enter recovery, and make important contributions to their communities.”

“Nationally, a wide chasm exists between the estimated 2.5 million people needing treatment for opioid use disorders and qualified providers willing to offer the necessary care,” said Jenifer Van Deusen, interprofessional education coordinator at UNE COM and the principal investigator on the grant. “This means that less than 1 percent of the people who need treatment are receiving it.”

Van Deusen, in her role as executive director of the Coalition on Physician Education in Substance Use Disorders, or COPE, is a co-developer of the groundbreaking national course that will be used to certify medical trainees. In order to prescribe MAT, providers must obtain a required waiver to their Drug Enforcement Agency license. Through this course medical students will receive a waiver to the DEA license received in residency, so they can prescribe under supervision. Under current educational practices, providers do not typically seek these waivers until after they enter the medical field.

The project will also update curriculum in UNE’s medical and physician assistant programs, to provide better substance use disorder training throughout students’ educational experiences. A goal of this enhanced training is to de-stigmatize substance use disorders so that students are open to providing MAT when they become physicians, and that all graduates of these programs understand that addiction is a chronic brain disease, not a moral failure.

“Receiving this training as part of a physician’s formal education, including the opportunity to treat patients under supervision, can result in greater awareness and understanding of substance use disorder,” said Selma Holden, M.D., UNE faculty and the grant’s clinical director. “This program will not only allow students to practice MAT, we hope it will make them more likely to provide this needed treatment in their future practice.”

The most recent National Institute on Drug Abuse Opioid Summary by State reveals that Maine was in the top 10 of states with the highest overdose deaths involving opioids. The Maine 2018 Annual Drug Death Report shows that, while the total of 354 drug fatalities during 2018 was lower than the 417 deaths reported in 2017, 80 percent of those deaths were caused by opioids.

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