Carolyn Hair works in the emergency department at Orlando Regional Medical Center, where she sees multiple opiate cases every day.
“Every single nurse probably deals with it on a certain amount every single day,” Hair, a senior nursing student, said.
Faculty in the College of Nursing makes sure their students are educated on the topic by following requirements set by accrediting bodies. Some professors include their own knowledge on the opioid epidemic in their teachings based off first-hand experience. Their programs weave this information throughout their curriculum in both undergraduate and graduate programs to arm students as they prepare to fight against the opiate epidemic.
Emergency room visits for opioid overdoses around the U.S. increased 30 percent from July 2016 to September 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Tuesday. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data from 2016 showed 42,249 people died from opioid-related drug overdoses, 11.5 million people misused prescription opioids, and $504 billion was spent in economic costs.
Last year, a public health emergency was announced to address the opioid crisis.
The Department of Health and Human Services states the crisis began “in the late 1990s [when] pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to opioid pain relievers.”
Dr. Christopher Blackwell, director of the adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner program at UCF, ensures his students are aware of alternatives that can be used instead of opiates when teaching his pharmacology course.
“The takeaway is that they can use alternatives to promote avoidance of using opiates,” Blackwell said.
The College of Medicine announced on their website the end of last year that they revised their curriculum to better prepare their future physicians on whether to prescribe opioids, which is now included in all four years of medical school training.
The College of Nursing, however, still ensures their students are educated on it by having already infused it into their curriculum.
Not all nurses are able to prescribe medications and a nurse practitioner is one of the few nurses who can. The differences in student experience is why there hasn’t been a major curriculum distinction for the opioid epidemic.
“A big difference between medicine and nursing is that the vast majority of our students, when they come into the nurse practitioner program, [is] they’re already practicing nurses,” Blackwell said. “They know what it’s like to work at the bedside."
Dr. Stephen Heglund, program director for the post-license BSN program, explained that the role of a nurse influences the differences in education among physicians and nurses.
“We teach the students how to assess a patient’s pain and to advocate for appropriate pain control. That’s the nurse’s role,” Heglund said. “It’s the physician or the advanced practice nurse that does the prescribing, makes that end prescribing decision.”
Nurses are the first line of defense in a hospital setting when a patient first arrives. It is important for nurses to be confident in their knowledge of medications even if they aren’t prescribing.
“It’s your job to be a patient advocate for them, serve them to the best of your ability,” Hair said.
In the emergency department, it is unlikely the crisis could be solved overnight because of the quick patient turnover.
“The max amount of time they’re probably in the emergency department is hopefully less than a day,” Hair said. “You’re not going to cure their addiction in a day.”
While being aware of patients and decreasing prescriptions may be able to help reduce the effects of the crisis, the opioid epidemic requires an effort from healthcare professionals no matter their role, whether they are a physician or a nurse.
Dr. Diane Andrews, director for nursing leadership and management master’s program, agrees that an issue like this requires different minds working together and is looking forward to this once the move to Lake Nona occurs.
“We hope it will allow us to collaborate much more on these topics,” Andrews said.
Nursing students in the field, like Hair, are learning early on the signs of an at-risk patient and can use prior knowledge to better provide for the patient.
“I think that creates a little bit more of an advantage for nurses,” Blackwell said. “They already come to the table with a strong knowledge on how those drugs work, how they’re to be monitored and how physiologically they can create an unstable environment quickly for a patient if they’re not given correctly.”