_MEDICINE Community Health

_Fighting Addiction Stigma

Students at the College of Medicine are destigmatizing opioid use disorder to improve overdose reversal training and advocate for new treatments.

_Annette Gadegbeku

Gadegbeku is an associate dean, associate professor and faculty director of Healing Hurt People.

_Ben Haslund-Gourley

Haslund-Gourley is a doctoral candidate and medical student in the College of Medicine.

In the face of a relentless epidemic, an overdose-prevention group staffed by College of Medicine students has evolved beyond street medicine into research and publications aimed at tackling stigmas that harm the recovery chances of those addicted to opioids.

The Naloxone Outreach Project formed in 2017 to show businesses and residents in neighborhoods hard hit by the opioid crisis how to administer Narcan, a life-saving overdose reversal treatment. The project is run through the College of Medicine’s Health Outreach Project.

The Naloxone Outreach Project students have since made important contributions to overdose prevention research by examining ways to reduce stigmas surrounding opioid use disorder.

For instance, they measured the impact of training designed to promote empathy among health care professionals and medical students. In one study, they joined peers from Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in providing naloxone training in tandem with education about the history and causes of the opioid epidemic.

“I think the training does a great job of going into the history of the opioid crisis, and humanizing people with opioid use disorder,” says Associate Professor Annette Gadegbeku, who advised the students.

The 2022 study, appearing in the Harm Reduction Journal, measured the impact of combining stigma-reducing education with overdose reversal training.

“Our training is more involved and holistic than simply showing participants: ‘Here’s how to use Narcan,’” says medical student and doctoral candidate Ben Haslund-Gourley. “In almost every instance, participants increased their desire to empathize and help people after the training.”

Later that year, Drexel students published longitudinal research in the Harm Reduction Journal that demonstrated that some effects of that training diminish over the course of three months, suggesting the need for ongoing reinforcement and follow-up.

The group continues to press scientists and practitioners in their field for better medical solutions to the crisis. In a September 2022 article in Chemical Engineering Progress, Haslund-Gourley, his classmate Kyle Samson and Professor Sujata Bhatia called upon the medical and chemical engineering communities to invest in research into non-addictive alternatives to opioids, to expand access to medications that treat addiction and to combat stigma against opioid use disorder among doctors.

“More physicians should reexamine their preconceptions and beliefs surrounding individuals with opioid use disorder,” they wrote.

“Individuals with opioid use disorder are human beings stuck in a destructive loop of dangerous decisions because they lack better alternatives. It is the role of physicians to provide treatments, support and respect for all individuals.”