Student view:

Brittany Ladson: Epidemic meets pandemic

July 29, 2020

Brittany Ladson is a third-year medical student in the College of Osteopathic Medicine. Her rotations at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, MI begin this August, and she hopes to pursue a residency in emergency medicine so she can combine her interest in opiate addiction medicine with other fields of medicine.

One of the least noticed effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is not the disease itself but its devastating effect on other medical problems. One of the biggest is the crisis with opioid misuse. The stay-at-home orders and social distancing are having disproportionate effects on those already suffering from substance misuse — with terrible consequences. In Chicago, CBS News reports overdose fatalities are up 50% over last year. Opiate overdose deaths have literally become a symptom for COVID-19.

Before COVID-19 was introduced to the world, those experiencing opiate misuse disorder could attend narcotics anonymous meetings, receive treatment at methadone clinics and receive in-person social support from friends and family. Although these resources have not been equally accessible across all socioeconomic backgrounds, their impact in many lives has been extraordinarily vital. With the introduction of social restrictions, people in recovery are put at risk of relapse or overdose. Physical distancing hinders community support, reduced income or job loss can introduce new stress in lives, and difficulty accessing treatments such as naloxone, buprenorphine and methadone can lead to withdrawal.

Another effect of the pandemic is school shutdowns, which have halted high school opiate education programs. Even before the complications of coronavirus, an average of 70,000 people died from opiate related deaths in the United States every year, but educational and Naloxone distribution programs can reduce the total number of opioid overdoses up to 55% within those communities.

This is where my work comes in. To address the growing opioid epidemic, six third-year MSU medical students and I developed an opiate awareness educational program for high school students across Michigan, then tested its efficacy. High school students in Michigan already learn about the dangers of cigarettes and alcohol through the required Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program but weren’t receiving systematic knowledge about opioid abuse.

Above: Christian Rohl, Terry Cregg (high school teacher at East Lansing High School), Brittany Ladson and Saaranga Sasitharan, students who ran the opiate awareness programs. Credit: Brittany Ladson

Our program fills this gap with an interactive combination of thought-provoking videos, energetic group discussions and a unique lecture-styled material delivery. We began by holding educational programs for nearly 300 students at East Lansing High School in Ingham County, Romeo High School in Macomb County and Benjamin Carson High School in Wayne County. If high school students learn early about the seriousness of opiate misuse, would that impact their decisions to use opiates? This is exactly what we sought to discover.

Topics discussed during the program included identification of opiates, overdose, societal impact, national financial burden, and Narcan administration (an overdose reversal medication). When we gave students a chance to talk to one another in small groups about developing solutions to these problems, we were astounded to see how engaged and creative they were. Some even thought of ideas that never crossed our minds. One group of students thought to create an electronic pill box that would only open when it was the exact date and time of a patient’s next narcotic dose, thus stopping patients from taking too much and preventing potential addiction.