In March, the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers hosted a series of “Addiction 101” trainings for our staff, community partners, and the primary care practices that make up our Accountable Care Organization (ACO), with the goal of reducing stigma and improving quality of care for patients struggling with addiction in Camden. Three-hundred staff members from 20 organizations attended the trainings.

Shelly Virva, Associate Clinical Director of Online Education and Workforce Development at the Camden Coalition, and Scott Haga, Physician’s Assistant at Spectrum Health in Michigan, both of whom have years of experience providing care for patients struggling with substance use disorders, facilitated the trainings. They focused on the science of addiction and trauma, how medication-assisted treatment helps patients with addiction recover, and the importance of trauma-informed care.

Camden has been no stranger to the skyrocketing rates of opioid abuse gripping the country. And in Camden, as in communities across the country, lack of training on addiction combined with the stigma surrounding drug use often leads to addiction being treated as a moral failure rather than a chronic disease.

Shelly and Scott also emphasized the overlap between addiction and trauma— up to 90% of people with substance abuse disorders have histories of early life trauma. Pain, addiction, and trauma all damage similar pathways in the brain— those that we use to process information, cope with stress, regulate emotions, and control impulses. “One of the most important things I tell people is that behavior is a symptom,” said Shelly.

Patients struggling with addiction are often stigmatized for their rates of relapse, but Scott pointed out that relapse rates for substance use disorders are similar to relapse rates for other chronic diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. “If a diabetic patient came in and told you they ate a Twinkie, you wouldn’t call them a treatment failure and discharge them from your program,” he said. “Unfortunately, we do that all the time to patients with substance use disorders.”

Lisa Bennett, a medical records administrator at Virtua’s family health center, said that she was glad to have had the training at her practice. “If someone has an addiction, you need to get them the help they need. That’s why we have the problem we have— people just turn their heads. It’s just a vicious cycle,” she said. “I think we need to do more.”

Despite the acute need for medication-assisted treatment, most primary care providers across the country are not licensed to prescribe buprenorphine, an effective treatment option for many people struggling with opioid addiction. We hope that raising awareness of addiction as a chronic, treatable condition leads to more primary care practices in the city in becoming licensed to prescribe buprenorphine and other evidence-based treatments.

Meanwhile, we will continue to train agencies in Camden to ensure that patients with substance use disorders are getting the quality, trauma-informed care that they need. “[Addiction] affects everyone,” said Lisa. “There needs to be more resources. Whether you have money or you don’t have money, there’s no help, and we need to make help for them.”

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