If you’ve never browsed CASA’s website, you need to do so. CASA, which stands for Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, at Columbia University, has helpful information about addiction and its treatment that you can download for free. They have information about how to reduce the risk of addiction in teens (“The Importance of Family Dinners” series), information about the cost and impact of untreated addiction on society ( “Shoveling Up”), in formation about substance abuse and the U.S. prison population (“Behind Bars” series), and the availability of drugs on the internet (the “You’ve got Drugs” series). All of these contain useful and thought-provoking data.
This summer, they published a masterpiece: “Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap between Science and Practice.” I’ve read most of this book, and admire the clarity and call to action it presents. This publication outlines all aspects of what is wrong with addiction treatment in the U.S., and how to fix it.
Every politician should read it. Every parent should read it. Physicians and treatment center personnel should read it. Anyone who is concerned about the extent of addiction and its poor treatment in the U.S. should read it.
CASA describes their key findings of the drawbacks of the U.S. system – or non-system – of addiction treatment. This nation is doing many things wrong, to the detriment of people afflicted with addiction, their families and their communities. Our mistakes are based on ignorance, misperceptions, and prejudice. All of these impede our ability to help our people with addiction. The CASA report clearly describes these factors, saying they all contributed to our present situation. We have declared a war on people who use drugs, not on drugs.
The CASA report describes how public opinion about addiction isn’t based on science. We now have science that proves addiction is a brain disease. We know that continued use of addicting substances alters the structure and function of the brain, affecting judgment and behavior about the continued use of drugs even when bad consequences occur. We know that at least half of the risk for developing addiction is determined by one’s genetic makeup. Yet surveys show that about a third of U.S. citizens still feel addiction is due to lack of willpower and self-control. Why are public attitudes so disconnected from science?
Addiction is a complicated diagnosis, existing as it does at the end of the continuum from occasional drug use to regular use to compulsive use. People often compare a drug user with a drug addict. They say that since the drug user was able to stop when he wanted that the drug addict should be able to stop when he wanted. This compares apples to oranges. If someone can comfortably stop using drugs when given a good enough reason to do so, this person isn’t an addict. They may be a drug abuser, a problem user, and at high risk for addiction, but they haven’t crossed the line into uncontrollable use.
The CASA report illuminates what addiction medicine physicians have been saying for years: addiction treatment and prevention isn’t treated by physicians and health professionals. Most addiction treatment is provided by counselors who, for the most part, aren’t required to have any medical training. Only six states require a bachelor’s degree to become an addiction counselor, and only one (Alabama, go figure) requires a master’s degree.
Even when physicians are involved in the treatment of addiction, most of us have very little, if any, training in medical school or residencies about addiction prevention or treatment. Ironically, most of our training focuses on treating the consequences of addiction.
In medical school and residency, I spent countless hours learning about the proper treatment of cirrhosis, gastritis, anemia, pancreatitis, dementia, and peripheral neuropathy from alcohol addiction. I had little if any training about how to treat alcohol addiction, and none about how to prevent it.
We know brief interventions by physicians during office visits can reduce problem drinking and are an effective way to prevent problems before they occur. Yet few physicians are trained to do this brief intervention. Even if they are trained, primary care physicians and physician extenders are being asked to do more and more at each visit with patients, and asked to do it with less and less time. Often, primary care providers aren’t paid to do brief interventions, and an opportunity for prevention is lost. Yet that same patient may consume hundreds of thousands of healthcare dollars during only one hospital admission for the consequences of with alcohol addiction.
When I practiced in primary care, I often thought about how I never got to the root of the problem. I felt like I was slapping Band-Aids on gaping wounds. I would – literally – give patients with addiction strikingly absurd advice. “Please stop injecting heroin. You got that heart valve infection from injecting heroin and you need to quit.” I could see it was ineffective, but I didn’t know any better way at the time. I thought if there was a better way to treat patients, I’d have learned about it in my training.
Wrong. Instead, I learned about this vast body of scientific literature about addiction treatment by accident, when I worked at an addiction treatment center for a few days, covering for a doctor friend of mine.
In coming blogs, I’ll outline more of the points made by this timely publication. In the meantime, read it for yourself at http://www.casacolumbia.org