Medical School Hosts Opioid Crisis Symposium

Harvard Medical School Quadrangle
Gordon Hall of Medicine, an administrative building at Harvard Medical School, sits overlooking the Quadrangle at the Longwood campus.
UPDATED: October 10, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.

Speakers at Harvard Medical School’s first-ever symposium on the opioid crisis discussed the challenges of opioid addiction and strongly urged medical students to learn about how to prevent opioid dependency.

The symposium, named “The Opioid Crisis: HMS Responds with Education,” featured Medical School professors who presented on national trends and causes of opioid addiction. Introductory speakers included Medical School Dean George Q. Daley ’82 and Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79.

Daley said that the opioid crisis was the “greatest public health crisis faced by our nation.”

“The need for action has never been more acute, and one of the fronts of the struggle is without a doubt, education and training,” he said. “As we work to save lives and alleviate suffering, it is our duty to address this issue.”

Praising the expertise of the speakers, Daley said that he hoped the symposium would generate “effective and actionable policies” and that the medical school’s efforts will “create a body of best practices and teaching strategies that will serve as a resource for the world.”

In March, the Medical School launched OpioidX, an online course which focuses on opioid abuse treatment and prevention. Thousands of people from over 100 countries enrolled in the course within a month of its creation.

Baker, who is on the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, said that he became aware of the extent of the opioid crisis during his gubernatorial campaign in 2014.

“This was a really big fire burning that wasn’t necessarily getting the time or attention or the focus it deserved,” he said.

In 2015, Baker created an opioid addiction working group which called for mandatory pain management and substance use disorder education for every medical student and resident in Massachusetts. In August, a quarterly report from the Massachusetts Department of Health showed that opioid overdose deaths fell by 5 percent in the first half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016.

Baker said that while he believed that the state is “headed the right way,” the looming dangers of inadequate medical education and higher use of fentanyl—an especially potent opioid—meant that the crisis was far from over.

“It’s going to be especially important in the pharmaceutical, dental, medical, and nursing communities to grab the ball and run with it with respect to ensuring that we use this stuff in the most efficacious and safest way possible,” he said.

Psychobiology professor Bertha K. Madras, who also sits in the Opioid Committee alongside Baker, read a passage citing inadequate education as the chief cause of widespread addiction. Madras then revealed that the passage was written in 1875, pointing out that a lack of medical and patient education continues to plague the country.

“We must also remember the patients. We must remember the consequences of stigma to the individual. And we must remember patient education,” she said.

Psychiatry professor Todd R. Griswold echoed a similar sentiment and urged medical schools to expose students to opioid treatment in clinical settings.

“It’s really important students don’t just see patients when they are in the midst of their worst struggles in addiction, but that they see people when they are doing well,” Griswold said.

—Staff writer William L. Wang can be reached at william.wang@thecrimson.com.

This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:

CORRECTION: October 6, 2017

A previous version of this story misspelled Psychiatry professor Todd R. Griswold's name.

CORRECTION: October 10, 2017

A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated that Charlie Baker was the chair of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. In fact, he is a member of the commission, not the chair.

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