Medical students harbor stigma against patients with substance abuse disorders, study suggests

Incoming medical students have a greater knowledge of opioid overdose than the general public but still hold significantly stigmatized feelings about patients with substance abuse disorders, according to a study accepted for publication in Substance Abuse

Researchers at the Detroit-based Wayne State University School of Medicine surveyed incoming medical students on their knowledge of opioid use disorder, finding more than half knew someone with a substance abuse disorder and one quarter knew someone who had overdosed. They also found that students who had previously worked in a healthcare setting knew less about how to respond to an opioid overdose than those who did not. 

“We had expected that people who had previous health care experience would know more, not less, than those who had not,” Tabitha Moses, a Wayne State MD/PhD student and one of the study’s researchers, said in a Nov. 8 news release. “We think that this result is indicative of just how pervasive stigma, bias and misunderstanding is around substance use disorders and overdose, and it is likely that students gained this misinformation during their clinical experiences.”

The study, which is part of a larger project aiming to improve substance use education in medical school, suggests the need for medical schools to provide fundamental information about substance abuse and incorporate more patient experiences into the curriculum to reduce the stigmatization of patients with substance abuse disorders. About 95 percent of survey participants said they wanted to improve their understanding of these topics.

“These baseline findings can be used to tailor didactic efforts, starting early in medical school, so that graduating physicians can be adequately prepared for clinical care,” Gertrude Levin Endowed Chair in Addiction and Pain Biology Mark Greenwald, PhD, said in the news release. 

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