Pain is the most common reason people seek health care.

That means many future health care providers will need to know how to prevent and treat their patients’ pain. They’ll also need to understand how treatment might lead to unintended consequences like opioid addiction.

To get out in front of that reality, Washington State University Health Sciences educates students from multiple programs so that they have a common, basic understanding of chronic pain and opioid use.

Under a five-year federal grant, WSU researchers developed materials based on scenarios of patients taking opioids for chronic pain. Groups of students from medicine, nursing, pharmacy, physician assistant, athletic training, social work, and other programs from regional colleges and universities study the scenarios, then work together through treatment options and risks.

That makes sense, says Connie Remsberg, an associate professor at the WSU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. “Out in the real world, health care’s not a silo,” she says. “You don’t just interact with a pharmacist or a nurse.”

Connie Remsberg in a lab talking to two young women
Connie Remsberg (Photo Cori Kogan)

The sessions help health care students understand that everyone on the health care team has a role combating the public health crisis that is opioid addiction. Over 75 percent of the nearly 107,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2021 involved an opioid, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. That number includes deaths from prescription painkillers, from heroin, and from synthetic opioids, especially illegally manufactured fentanyl.

“The trainings encourage students to ask themselves, ‘What can I contribute? In real life, what would I be doing to help this patient?’” says Dawn DeWitt, senior associate dean in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

Dawn DeWitt speaking into a microphone at a presentation
Dawn DeWitt (Photo Cori Kogan)

Similar training is offered to people already working in health care, such as the CHAS Health clinics in eastern Washington and north Idaho. More recently, trainings have been offered at pain conferences and professional society meetings. The grant also has funded a podcast on health care provider well-being, and outreach to rural clinics.

More than 3,000 students have participated in the WSU-developed training, and close to 1,000 clinicians. Federal and state grants to fund the work total more than $3 million.

Students who’ve gone through the training give it high marks, and following a pandemic lull, demand for the clinical training has sometimes outrun WSU’s capacity to provide it, says DeWitt. The next challenge is moving beyond grant funding to build a sustainable, permanent program.

“This opioid problem is not somebody else’s problem,” she says. “People become dependent, not because they’re weak or bad people, but because there’s a physiology to this. This work is really important.”


Read more

Substance use and addiction  (Feature Part 1)

Contingency management works, so why isn’t it being widely used?  (Feature Part 2)

How to talk about substance use  (Feature Part 4)

From the archive: No pain’s a gain  (Spring 2015)

From the archive: Opiates, gender, and alternative pain relief  (Fall 2015)


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