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Doctors Are Unprepared to Diagnose and Treat Addiction


The prevalence of addiction in this country no longer comes across as shocking news to the general public as most people are aware that the drug and alcohol problem in America is enormous. However, what may come as a surprise is the inability of doctors to feel comfortable in diagnosing and treating any form of addiction. In fact, many physicians do not receive adequate training in addiction medicine – which only exacerbates a problem that is already out of control. There are a number of potential solutions that could help physicians feel comfortable diagnosing, treating, and referring these patients and provide those who suffer from addiction a more comprehensive and efficient approach.

Substance abuse and dependence are medical conditions that affect 22.5 million people over the age of 12 in the United States (Saleh). An additional 80 million Americans are considered at-risk substance users, using drugs, alcohol, and tobacco in ways that threaten their health and safety (Whiteside Manor). However, only about 20% of doctors feel completely prepared to deal with – meaning diagnose, treat, or refer- addiction (Saleh). This sentiment from physicians was clearly shown in a 2012 study at Massachusetts General Hospital, where 101 residents of primary care, internal medicine, or medicine/pediatrics completed a survey that assessed their knowledge of addiction diagnostics and treatment, their training in addiction medicine, and their comfort level in dealing with addiction (Massachusetts General Hospital). A quarter of the respondents felt unprepared to diagnose addiction, and 62% felt unprepared to treat it. Additionally, the majority of residents rated their training in addiction medicine as fair to poor – 72% in the outpatient setting, and 56% percent in the inpatient training (Massachusetts General Hospital). The only group that rated their training in addiction medicine as good to excellent was primary care residents, who were given a different curriculum for their training in addiction medicine (Massachusetts General Hospital).

This study represented typical numbers in hospitals across the United States, both in terms of the disease prevalence of addiction in hospitals as well as the comfort level of physicians in dealing with addiction. However, there are options that hospitals and schools can implement to help physicians feel more comfortable treating and providing references for addicts and alcoholics – after all, many of these doctors can comfortably diagnose serious physical disorders and refer patients to specialists every day, and the same level of knowledge and comfort needs to be achieved with addiction in their professional setting. For example, there are now 10 academic medical centers in America that offer a 2 year residence in addiction medicine that physicians could attend (Whiteside Manor). Existing medical schools and residencies can include more in-depth and efficient training as the Massachusetts General Hospital opted to do after the results of their survey. Instead of having an hour conference regarding alcoholic detox and calling it a day, residents now have multiple conferences, and case studies involving addiction histories (Massachusetts General Hospital).

The fact is that doctors are often confronted with addiction – many people seek medical help for physical symptoms caused by their addiction. These doctors need to be able to administer a simple diagnostic test, such as the Drug Abuse Screening Test -10, come to a preliminary conclusion, and offer a specialist referral if the results call for it (Saleh). Not only do testing procedures and drug screenings need to become more sophisticated, but training in addiction medicine needs to improve for physicians. The problem of  addiction isn’t going anywhere, and these doctors can make a difference in the lives of addicts through education, referrals, and specific treatments.


Works Cited:

Massachusetts General Hospital. “Survey points out deficiencies in addictions training for medical residents.” 22 May 2013. Medical Xpress. Web. 5 August 2013.

Saleh, Naveed. “Physicians Unprepared to Deal With Substance Misuse.” 5 August 2013. Psychology Today. Web. 5 August 2013.

Whiteside Manor. “An Honest Report: US Physicians Lack Addiction Training, But Let’s Remember: Honesty Is A Two Way Street.” 4 September 2012. Whiteside Manor. Web. 5 August 2013.

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Written by

A native New Yorker, Bre loves the California scene and writing for Treatment4Addiction. She has been writing content for T4A for five months, and loves to learn new things, form opinions, and send them out to the world. Her interests include dance, singing, acting, talking with friends, being a daughter, and being the best big sister she can to her 16 year old brother. After attending ASU for a few months, she is interested in taking cosmetology classes and exploring her options. She looks forward to learning all she can, and doing something positive with that knowledge and experience.

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