IOWA CITY — Speaking Friday to University of Iowa medical students, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack scolded the institution for not doing enough to train its soon-to-be health professionals on a staggering opioid abuse epidemic that claims thousands of lives a year nationally.
“The university is more and more, every single day, becoming more of an outlier,” Vilsack told a crowd inside the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, pointing to a growing number of schools that have updated their training based on new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Read the Gazette’s coverage of the Heroin and opioid problem in Iowa.
“We’ve seen a remarkable increase in number — this started with zero just a few months ago, and it’s now 101,” said Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who has been tasked by the Obama administration to take on rural issues including painkiller and heroin abuse. “So there is significant progress being made in this space, and I sincerely hope the university finds a way to make it work for the curriculum, make it work for the students — but most of all make it work for the families that are struggling with this issue of addiction.”
After Vilsack’s remarks, UI Health Care medical affairs vice president and dean of the medical college Jean Robillard told The Gazette the institution does plan to make changes in the way it teaches med students about prescribing opioids. He said the UI received information on it from the White House earlier this week.
“We have already begun working on the request and are planning to not only incorporate the information into our medical school curriculum, but are looking into how the information can be broadly shared with physicians as well,” Robillard said.
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Vilsack highlighted the issue — among others involving the medical community and rural America — during his visit to the UI campus. Obama has put him in charge of the White House Rural Council, which is addressing challenges like opioids in rural communities.
He cited staggering numbers of abuse, addiction and cost.
The nation annually loses $25 billion on productivity and spends another $25 billion on health care costs related to opioid abuse and addiction, he said.
According to the CDC, opioids — including heroin, hydrocodone and oxycodone — were responsible for 28,648 deaths in 2014.
In Iowa, 52 people died from opioid overdoses that year, with 19 suffering fatal heroin overdoses, state data.
In June, The Gazette published “Heroin’s Hold,” a four-part series examining personal stories of addiction and possible solutions.
The series reported that there were 21 fatal overdoses in Linn County and six in Johnson County in 2015 from opiates, including heroin and prescription painkillers.
Federal agencies are training their prescribing agents — like those at Veterans Affairs hospitals — on new CDC guidelines that address when to initiate opioid use, how much to prescribe and how to best assess risk.
The guidelines include considering other therapies, setting realistic treatment goals with patients and discussing with patients the pros and cons of opioids.
Vilsack said he’s encouraging medical schools across the country to teach the same.
Getting the UI on board would make a difference, he said.
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“It’s hard for me, as an Iowan, to go out and preach this message when someone in some other state can go, ‘Well, how about the medical school in Iowa? Are they doing what you asked us to do?’” Vilsack said.
Robillard said that because the university received the federal communication only recently, he does not have a firm timeline for when the new training will go into effect.
But, he said, the institution “will implement this update to our curriculum at the earliest opportunity.”
UI spokesman Tom Moore noted that the UI medical college already has courses that discuss opiates and addiction, along with 12 lectures that discuss opiates.
Vilsack said he believes integrating the issue into the curriculum will add to the UI medical school’s selling points.
“You’ve got a choice between going to a university that cares about this issue enough that they have figured out a way to do this right,” he said, “and a university that hasn’t.”