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Medical Residents Grapple With How to Treat Opioid Use Disorder

May 10, 2018
     Isabella Morton, MD, MPH, discusses her poster
     on medical residents and treating opioid use

NEW YORK CITY—In the midst of the US opioid epidemic, incoming medical residents are expressing a troubling lack of awareness about diagnosing and treating patients with opioid use disorder (OUD), according to research presented at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting.

The findings, presented during a poster session May 5, are based on survey results from 52 incoming residents from 4 training programs. The participants were residents in emergency medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and psychiatry.

“An impressive 84% of all residents desired more formal training in residency on the treatment of opioid use disorder,” wrote presenter Isabella Morton, MD, MPH, and coauthors Danae Nicole DiRocco, MD, and Jamie Spitzer, MD.

Trivia: The Driving Factor Behind Long-Term Opioid Use

Dr. Morton said she and the other researchers conducted the survey after noticing, as first-year residents in Baltimore, Maryland, that residents in fields other than psychiatry had little knowledge about diagnosing or treating opioid use disorder. The 33-item survey was designed to be administered annually over the 4 years of participants’ residency training to track attitudes and knowledge about OUD.

“They’re not really seeing this in medical school. We need to make sure that we’re addressing this in residency because … people are going to graduate from residency and then be expected to know how to treat this," she said.

The study revealed that 38% of residents reported receiving no formal training on OUD in medical school. Nearly half the residents—and 71% of emergency medicine residents—said they felt unprepared to diagnose opioid use disorder. Just 15.4% felt knowledgeable about OUD treatment and resources in their community.

Majority of Opioid Prescriptions Written for Adults With Mental Illness

Regarding opioid withdrawal, 55.8% of residents said they felt prepared to diagnose it, but only 30.8% felt prepared to treat it.

“Our results demonstrate that incoming residents do not have adequate experience or knowledge to address the burgeoning opioid epidemic appropriately and that the vast majority of them want more formal training on opioid use disorder during residency,” the researchers wrote. “Our results point to the need to develop innovations in education so that physicians in training have access to the knowledge and tools necessary to confront the opioid epidemic.”

—Jolynn Tumolo and Terri Airov


“Comparison of residents’ attitudes and knowledge about opioid use disorder: a cross-sectional study.” Abstract presented at: the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting; May 5, 2018; New York, NY.

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