Tennessee leads most states in taking hard hits from the opioid epidemic, but if Dr. David Stern gets his way, the state also will lead the charge in combating the crisis.
As vice chancellor for health affairs for statewide initiatives at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, Stern is proposing adding standardized addiction medicine training to the medical education curriculum.
"There are many parts of fighting the opioid crisis, and our part is related to education and forming a network of providers," said Stern.
He said the proposal targets future primary care physicians, who often are the first contacts for patients but are not properly trained to treat addiction. However, the need for more education across medical specialties is essential, because managing substance use disorders is multidisciplinary.
"Addiction in certain practices can affect 80 percent of the patients; in other practices it may be 5 to 10 percent, but there's almost no practice where this is not an issue," he said.
Many medical schools are considering curriculums that address substance use disorders, but UT is particularly poised to take on the opioid epidemic, according to Dr. Kevin Kunz, executive vice president of the Addiction Medicine Foundation.
"Tennessee is a state where this could be done, because the expertise is there," said Kunz, citing UT's Center for Addiction Science, which was recognized by his foundation as the first addiction medicine center of excellence in the country.
If the proposed UT program is successful, it could be implemented across the country.
The first component would add classroom and clinical training at the UT College of Medicine campuses in Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Jackson. Graduates and residents would have to complete that curriculum to practice medicine.
"Everybody should be getting similar information that way there's a common knowledge base," Stern said.
Next, Stern wants to recruit addiction medicine fellows from each campus to train for a year in Memphis before being assigned to practice in areas of need across the state. The fellows would form the "backbone" of what Stern calls the "Tennessee Addiction Medicine Network," or TAN.
"Those people will go out and become the addiction medicine experts — the idea is that these are the teachers that can reach out," he said.
Fellows would commit to work in the addiction program for three years in exchange for student loan forgiveness and a stipend to cover the cost of training.
Approximately $25.1 million is needed to fund the program, but according to Stern, the program would become financially self-sustaining after six years.
Dr. R. Bruce Shack, dean of the UT College of Medicine in Chattanooga, and Kevin Spiegel, president and CEO of Erlanger Health System, both said they support the proposal.
"This proposal would educate providers and help to put addiction specialists in a lot of practices around the state," Shack said. "People look upon opioid addiction and dependency as a weakness and not an illness, which is really is, and it needs to be treated like an illness, and that's part of the education process for physicians."
Stern said he plans to take his proposal to other leaders across the state and country with hopes of garnering additional support.
"This is a disease that cuts across every division that you can think of," he said "This is a proposal on behalf of Tennessee."
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at email@example.com or 423-757-6673.