St. Louis University is starting a program to train doctors to treat patients with addictions. The university’s school of medicine will operate the state’s first addiction medicine fellowship. 

Fellowship doctors will compete rotations at the city’s hospitals, clinics and community health centers. They'll also learn how to treat addiction in pregnant patients and newborns and receive training in telemedicine.

“It’s exciting, because addiction psychiatry has been around since 1991, but addiction medicine now is open to any specialty in medical education,” said Dr. Fred Rottnek, a SLU family medicine professor and director of the fellowship.

The Missouri Foundation for Health, SLU, SSM Health and the State Opioid Response program are funding the fellowships, which cost nearly $100,000 a year, including salaries and administrative costs. 

Fellowships are post-graduate programs that doctors can use to further specialize in a chosen field. For decades, doctors have been able to complete fellowships in specialties such as pediatrics and cardiology. But the American College of Graduate Medical Education only certified addiction medicine fellowships in 2018, in part as a response to the nation’s opioid overdose crisis.

SLU has selected one fellow, Dr. Kate Austman, for the first year of the program. Starting next year, the medical school will select two fellows to complete the training. 

“It will be very much a community-based experience, with focus on getting folks into outpatient care and helping people access medication treatment,” Rottnek said.

Fellowships can help rural doctors in particular learn skills to take back to their communities, Rottnek said. That’s true of Austman, a family medicine physician from Gibson City, Illinois. 

Austman has been practicing medicine for 15 years. In recent years, she's seen an increasing number of patients with addition problems, particularly opioid use disorder.

Being a primary care doctor gives her a unique ability to reach patients, she said. “When I look at it, I have my own patients with addiction; this is something that we should be doing inside our own space,” she said.

Austman hopes to become an ambassador for thoughtful addiction treatment at her 20-bed hospital in eastern Illinois. By teaching other physicians what she’s learned, she hopes to create a “no-wrong-door” environment, in which patients will be able to find addiction help with any doctor they encounter.

It’s rare for a mid-career doctor to go back to school, Austman said. It’s difficult for doctors with families and work obligations to commit to the rigorous program. 

She thinks that older doctors and their patients could benefit from more addiction training. “We really didn’t get much education on this; it’s not tackled in traditional medical schools and residencies,” Austman said. “The opioid crisis has really brought this to the forefront … I feel like we should become more comfortable with it.”

For information about the fellowship, visit https://www.slu.edu/medicine/family-medicine/addiction-medicine.php or contact Dr. Rottnek at fred.rottnek@health.slu.edu.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge.

Reprinted with permission from news.stlpublicradio.org.

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