Why Seek Out an Addiction Medicine Physician?
If you have a problem with your heart, you see a cardiologist. Your skin? A dermatologist. And if you have a problem with alcohol or drug addiction? An addiction medicine physician may be your best bet.
Here are six things to know about addiction medicine physicians – and why they are so necessary to helping our country gain the upper hand over substance use disorders.
1. What is addiction medicine?
Addiction medicine is the prevention, evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of people with the disease of addiction, including nicotine, alcohol, prescription pain medications and other illegal drugs. Physicians in this subspecialty also help family members whose health and functioning are affected by a loved one’s substance use or addiction.
2. Why are addiction medicine physicians needed?
Over 20 million people in the U.S. have substance use disorders. According to Facing Addiction in America, the Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, 2.5 million reported misusing prescription pain relievers (opioids such as Percocet, oxycodone and hydrocodone) and 22.5 million reported using an illegal drug in the previous year.
By comparison, 30 million Americans have diabetes, 5 million are living with congestive heart failure, and 14.5 million are living with a cancer diagnosis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Substance abuse is right up there with some of our nation’s biggest health problems.
Yet people facing addiction often struggle to get access to evidence-based treatment. Only 8% of medical schools require medical students to take a course on addiction medicine, while 36% offer a course as an elective, according to studies cited in the Surgeon General’s report.
3. What are the options if people want to see a physician who specializes in addiction medicine?
You have two choices: an addiction psychiatrist or an addiction medicine physician.
Addiction psychiatry had been a subspecialty of psychiatry for many years. But there aren’t enough addiction psychiatrists to see the millions of people who need help with substance use issues. Likewise, even though dual disorders are common in people addicted to drugs and alcohol, initially some people don’t connect their substance use with psychiatric issues so they never even consider that they might need a psychiatrist.
Addiction medicine physicians are physicians of any specialty, such as internal medicine, family medicine or anesthesiology, who have completed additional training in addiction medicine, typically a one-year fellowship program.
After, they can take a board exam to become board certified in addiction medicine. RiverMend Health Center of Atlanta’s Medical Director, Dr. Stacy Seikel, for example, is board certified in anesthesiology and addiction medicine.
4. Why was it an important moment when addiction medicine was formally recognized as a specialty?
Addiction medicine specialists are helping increase people’s access to high quality addiction treatment. In 2016, the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) formally recognized the field of addiction medicine as a medical subspecialty. The designation made it possible for many more physicians to receive training in helping patients with substance use disorders.
RiverMend Health Center of Augusta, in partnership with the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, is offering an addiction medicine fellowship program for physicians to help make sure there are more physicians trained in this important field.
5. What skills must addiction medicine specialists have?
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), addiction medicine physicians recognize and diagnose addiction as a primary brain illness. They can prescribe a full range of treatment services for individuals, families or significant others. They also:
- Demonstrate an empathetic, positive, and hopeful attitude toward addicted individuals and their families.
- Motivate patients, their families, or significant others to engage with, enter and stick with treatment.
- Seek appropriate consultation with other specialists to address any medical and psychiatric co-occurring conditions.
- Safely manage detox and withdrawal syndrome, and manage complications.
- Understand the techniques used by other addiction treatment disciplines, including intervention, counseling, group therapy and mutual help groups (such as the 12-steps).
- Understand drug testing technology, including the strengths and limits of various types.
- Understand the neurobiology of addiction, as well as social and economic factors.
6. Why seek out an addiction medicine specialist?
In addition to their medical skills and knowledge, addiction medicine physicians and psychiatrists have dedicated their careers to learning as much as they can about addiction and how best to treat it. They understand the unique set of physical, psychological and emotional issues that go along with addiction, and their top priority is helping people break free of the hold that drugs and alcohol have over them and get back to living.