Waiting for Treatment in Tennessee: The Doctor Will See You Soon

Tennessee plans to fill the gap by training its doctors in the field of addiction treatment.

It’s tragic. People are reaching out for help…and there’s no one there. As a nation, we’re experiencing a severe shortage of treatment options for those struggling with substance abuse.

The National Council for Behavioral Health reported shortages of behavioral health professionals in over three-fourths of the counties across the U.S. One Harvard University study found that 83 percent of phone calls placed to get an appointment with a mental health counselor were unsuccessful.

These alarming numbers don’t even touch on the drastic wait times faced by those wanting to receive residential treatment (which can stretch up to a year and a half).

Doctors Step Up to the Plate

In the midst of an opioid epidemic and mental health crisis, we’re in dire need of additional professionals who can help treat those in desperate situations.

Enter physicians.

A new initiative in Tennessee is designed to expand addiction medicine training to help equip all doctors to assist patients with substance abuse issues.

Dr. David Stern is spearheading this effort. Stern is vice chancellor for health affairs for statewide initiatives at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. He’s proposing the addition of standardized addiction medicine training to the medical education curriculum.

This proposal targets future primary care physicians and recognizes the need for more substance abuse education across medical specialties. PCPs aren’t typically trained to treat chemical dependency, yet they’re often the first contacts for people struggling with it.

Stern notes that, at times, 80 percent of a practice’s patients are affected by substance abuse. For others, it might be only five percent, but it’s still there. Clearly, doctors need to be prepared to properly treat this issue.

Once suitably trained, they could help fill the current gap in treatment.

Creating the Backbone of Addiction Medicine

Stern’s initiative includes adding classroom and clinical training at the UT College of Medicine campuses in Jackson, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Memphis. In order to practice medicine, graduates would be required to complete the addiction curriculum.

The second piece of Stern’s proposal is to create the “Tennessee Addiction Medicine Network” (TAN). This involves recruiting addiction medicine fellows from the UT campuses to train for one year, then assigning them to practice in areas of need across Tennessee.

Graduates would agree to work in the addiction program for three years and, in exchange, they would receive a stipend to cover training plus student loan forgiveness. Spread throughout the state to treat, teach, and train others, Stern hopes these addiction-trained physicians will become the backbone of TAN.

The program requires just over $25 million in initial funding. Stern plans to seek support from leaders across the state and the nation to gain the necessary funds. He notes the program will be financially self-sustaining in just six years.

If successful, this effort could be the beginning of much-needed change in Tennessee – one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic.

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