TUCSON, Ariz. – As access to addiction treatment resources during the COVID-19 pandemic has been reduced – or limited to interactions by video via computer, tablet or smartphone – a sustained increase in overdoses has occurred.
In response, a five-year, $1.4 million training grant awarded to the University of Arizona Health Sciences from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, aims to help change that.
“In Southern Arizona, we continue to see relapses and increases in fentanyl overdoses, opioid overdoses and drug overdoses overall,” said Elisa Gumm, DO, director of the Addiction Medicine Fellowship program in the Department of Psychiatry at the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson and principal investigator on the award. “Also, other substances such as cannabis and amphetamines have been contaminated with fentanyl, causing accidental overdoses.”
Statewide, the Arizona Department of Health Services reports nearly 7,000 deaths and 50,000 opioid overdoses from June 2017 to September 2020.
In Pima County, 37% of accidental deaths in 2019 were attributed to overdoses, which have been the leading cause of accidental death in four of the past five years, according to an April 2020 report from the Office of the Medical Examiner. Overdoses also accounted for double and triple the next leading cause of suicide deaths. Local overdose deaths affected largely men (73%) in their 50s (23%), with opiates and fentanyl as the causative agent accounting for 61% of the total in 2019.
Drug-related deaths and suicides have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic, both locally and nationally. In 2019, there were 337 drug-related deaths in Pima County. By mid-August, that number hit 221 and was expected to surpass 400 this year.
Part of the problem, Dr. Gumm said, is exactly what this grant aims to address – available services and staffing.
“Tucson and Arizona as a whole are lacking a sufficient number of addiction-specialized physicians who provide evidence-based treatments, lead interdisciplinary teams and provide life-saving medications,” which makes this grant award significant, Dr. Gumm said.
The HRSA grant allows the program to add two more fellows beginning with the current 2020-21 academic year. It also will help support underserved populations – including rural communities and community-based settings specializing in treatment of infants, children, adolescents and pregnant/postpartum women.
“Increasing access in rural and underserved areas is a priority of the Addiction Medicine Fellowship, and the University of Arizona Health Sciences, and we will be able to do this by growing the program,” said Dr. Gumm, also a staff physician at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System (SAVAHCS).
The Addiction Medicine Fellows – physicians who choose to complete additional subspecialty training after completing a core residency program – are educated on a multitude of substances and related addictions. As well as focusing on specialized addiction medicine approaches and interventions, the fellows are educated in traditional medicine and mental health therapies from a holistic perspective.
Fellows receive a one-year immersive education experience, training in specialized care by rotating through a variety of services including the SAVAHCS, UArizona Health Sciences college clinical partners (including Banner – University Medicine) and community partners (CODAC, New Beginnings, Sierra Tucson, In Balance Academy). They learn to treat people of all ages, from birth to adulthood with varied socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities. The fellowship also collaborates with the UArizona Health Sciences to provide training in rural areas and mentorship to help spread addiction prevention and treatment knowledge and methods.
“My training at the UArizona Addiction Medicine Program has prepared me to practice independently and confidently and renewed my love for medicine,” said Edward Ramsey, MD, a 2019-20 Addiction Medicine Fellow, now practicing medicine in Houston. “I regained a sense of value to society and self-worth as it relates to what I can offer to patients afflicted with substance use disorders.”
Research addressed in this publication was supported by the Health Services Resource Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, under Award No. T25HP376200100.
How to Apply
The Addiction Medicine Fellowship program is recruiting for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic years. Physicians interested in the fellowship can learn more at the program website or by emailing Program Coordinator Steve Schaefer, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Director Elisa Gumm, DO, email@example.com.
Find local behavioral health resources and support groups here – or visit OverdoseDay.com and its resources webpage. To obtain fentanyl test strips and naloxone, visit the Sonoran Prevention Works website or call 520-442-7688.
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About the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson
The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson is shaping the future of medicine through state-of-the-art medical education programs, groundbreaking research and advancements in patient care in Arizona and beyond. Founded in 1967, the college boasts more than 50 years of innovation, ranking among the top medical schools in the nation for research and primary care. Through the university's partnership with Banner Health, one of the largest nonprofit health care systems in the country, the college is leading the way in academic medicine. For more information, visit medicine.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | LinkedIn).
About the University of Arizona Health Sciences
The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. UArizona Health Sciences includes the Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona, the greater Southwest and around the world to provide next-generation education, research and outreach. A major economic engine, Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 4,000 students and 900 faculty members, and garners $200 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).