FPU Physician Assistant’s program pilots new substance abuse curriculum

  • Alex Higgins, a student in Franklin Pierce’s Master of Physician Assistant Studies performs an eye exam on her classmate Clarissa Brooks during the 2019 semester. Courtesy photo

  • Priscilla S. Marsicovetere, the director of Franklin Pierce University’s Master of Physician Assistant Studies program is working with students to develop a standardized curriculum for substance use disorder. Courtesy photo

  • Priscilla S. Marsicovetere, the director of Franklin Pierce University’s Master of Physician Assistant Studies program is working with students to develop a standardized curriculum for substance use disorder. Courtesy photo—

  • Franklin Pierce's Physician Assistant program is piloting a new curriculum that creates a basis for recognizing, diagnosing and treating Substance Abuse Disorder. Courtesy photo—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 10/5/2020 3:51:46 PM

A program at Franklin Pierce University is creating a new generation of health care workers with a better understanding of how to recognize and treat substance use disorder.

“There is a great need for better education around substance use disorder. We feel across health science programs, there was not a standardized education about how to recognize or treat it, and there needed to be,” Priscilla Marsicovetere, director of Franklin Pierce University’s Physician Assistant’s program, said Friday.

Substance use disorder is the clinical term for how drugs or alcohol affects a person’s brain and behavior, leading them to be unable to control their addiction. It can be treated with medications, behavioral therapy, or a combination. Marsicovetere said physician assistant programs across the country have approached teaching about substance use disorder in a variety of ways – where it is addressed at all.

Last year, 10 colleges piloted a new standardized curriculum around recognizing and treating substance use disorder, and this year, Franklin Pierce is among another ten continuing that process, funded by a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Eventually, Marsicovetere said, the goal is that the curriculum will be used by hundreds of physician assistant programs in the country, at least as a baseline, so the next generation of graduating medical professionals will go in armed with the same knowledge.

Mary Drew, the CEO and founder of Reality Check, a Jaffrey-based addiction recovery resource service, said there needs to be more education about substance abuse in general, including among health care workers.

“There’s a lot of stigma that’s alive and well. Substance abuse is still viewed as a moral failing. When addiction physiologically manifests, without intervention or treatment, people can’t just stop, which is what a lot of people tell them to do,” Drew said.

Phil Wyzik, CEO of Monadnock Family Services, said medical professionals often have a very broad education on topics such as mental health and addiction. But as providers who deal with often addictive medications, the more education they receive on how to recognize addiction, the better for the community.

“It’s very smart of the college to broaden its curriculum in this way, and it’s something we’d be supportive of,” Wyzik said.

 “It really does need a spotlight on it right now,” Marsicovetere said. “As recently as 2018, 92 percent of people who qualified for substance use disorder treatment, weren’t receiving treatment, even though they needed it, which leads to consequences such as overdoses and deaths. The problem is staggering.”

Hillsborough County, which includes the state’s largest city, Manchester, has been hardest hit. In 2019, according to the NH Drug Monitoring Initiative, Hillsborough County led the state in drug deaths, uses of opioid-reversal drugs, and treatment admissions.

In 2019, there were at least 348 drug overdose deaths in the state, with 126 of them in Hillsborough County, and 16 in Cheshire County. That number is down from 2018, when there were a recorded 471 overdose deaths, but Marsicovetere said it’s still an alarming number.

“That’s hundreds of people that we have lost,” she said.

And the numbers this year, with the COVID-19 pandemic isolating people and limiting personal interaction and in-person addiction recovery sources, Drew said there has already been a significant increase in reported overdoses compared to 2019’s numbers.

The pilot program educates students on how to recognize the signs of addiction, as well as teaching treatment methods which include medication-assisted therapies and counseling. Marsicovetere said prior to becoming involved with the creation of the new curriculum, Franklin Pierce’s Physician Assistant program did address substance use, but it mainly focused on the impact of certain treatments on the brain. Now, she said, it’s focused on a more proactive approach.

In addition, students graduating from the Franklin Pierce program receive a certification that qualifies them for medication-assisted treatment of substance use disorder, and also have the option to use their clinical rotation to assist within a functioning treatment program.

It’s important to get the information into the hands of health care workers like physician assistants, Marsicovetere, because they have face-to-face interaction with patients. In small or rural hospitals, which may have less resources, the more eyes on the problem, the better.

Offered from Franklin Pierce’s academic center in Lebanon, the university’s Master of Physician Assistant Studies specifically targets students interested in entering healthcare in rural and under-served communities.

“We’re front-line workers,” Marsicovetere said. “I treat these patients every week. I know first hand how great the need is and what role our students can play.”

Drew said the more health care workers know, the more they can identify problems. A program to standardize curriculum is a start to a system that helps people find long-term treatment and pair with recovery resources.


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