By Michelle Bai
While at the 2018 APhA Institute on Substance Use Disorders in Salt Lake City, UT, I heard many reasons why people wanted to attend. Some expressed an interest in working within the field of substance use disorder, while others referenced personal experiences with addiction affecting family members, friends, or even themselves.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, there are 20.8 million people with a substance use disorder living in the United States. That means substance use disorder is 1.5 times more common than all cancers combined and has a prevalence similar to diabetes. During your pharmacy career, you will be expected to counsel patients with diseases such as hypertension, heart failure, diabetes mellitus, and many more; but you will be prepared for this because this knowledge is part of the PharmD curriculum. However, these patients may also be struggling with addiction, and you will need to consider complications that may arise due to an active substance use disorder or substance withdrawal.
Do you feel prepared for that? I didn’t. This is one of the many reasons I wanted to attend the Institute, and I am glad that I did as a recipient of the APhA Foundation Ronald L. Williams Memorial Fund Scholarship.
Over 5 days, attendees discussed a variety of issues addressing clinical, community, and personal views and roles played in the context of addiction. There were several discussions I found useful on a professional level, including how an overdose might present in the emergency department; pain management in addiction recovery (a very tricky topic!); and how to have brief interventions in a community pharmacy setting. Admittedly naive about substances of abuse other than alcohol, I personally found a talk on newly emerging and popularly abused medications extremely interesting and educational.
In the evenings, we met for open AA/NA/Al-Anon meetings, which were profoundly eye- opening. Many who spoke were the ones I expected: the child of an alcoholic, the person who had themselves abused opioids, and the best friend who had helplessly witnessed recreational drug use spiral out of control. But there were also the ones I didn’t expect. The girlfriend of the child of an alcoholic, the co-worker of the person who had abused opioids, or not the best friend but the roommate who barely knew the guy and was still deeply affected. As more and more people spoke up on how addiction had impacted their lives, the damaging ripple effect of substance use disorders on, not just the stereotypes we expect, but the entire community became glaringly obvious.
Prove it by doing it
A panel of pharmacists working within the substance use disorder community had this as a message for attendees: If you see a place where your clinical expertise and passion can improve patient care, and no one else believes in you—show them. Prove it by doing it. Demonstrate your value. Right now, as the profession is pushing for growth and acknowledgment that a pharmacist’s education and responsibility is so much more than dispensing medications, I believe this message is important for all student pharmacists to hear, no matter what aspect of pharmacy you pursue.
Although there were many emotionally heavy moments throughout the weekend, this incredibly uplifting and inspiring talk was my absolute favorite. It is one I will hold onto and lean on, not just in my career but in all aspects of my life.
Being a Williams Scholarship recipient was an amazing, one-of-a-kind, experience that I will be forever grateful for. My experience was full of personal growth, professional connections, and learning that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. The best part of this experience is knowing that my community will also benefit from my time at the Institute. By using the knowledge I have gained, sharing my passion, and knowing my value, I will create a much different ripple in my community than that of substance use disorder.
I look forward to hearing all about the 2019 Institute, which will be held May 29–June 2. For more information, go to aphainstitute.pharmacist.com and be sure to follow Institute coverage on the APhA–ASP Facebook page.