JMU hosts conference on opioids


By Laura Mack
Creative Services Student Writer

Opioid Conference

With the opioid crisis declared as a national emergency, state and federal agencies are now equipped with greater resources and opportunities to combat addiction. Looking to join this effort, the JMU physician assistant (PA) program received a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration that they used to host the Conference on Opioids on October 21. With grant funding, the day-long conference was offered at no charge for doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, students and others in the medical field. Speakers covered a variety of topics to appeal to the different professions represented at the conference, which all play important roles in tackling the opioid crisis.

Opioids include illegal substances like heroin and legally prescribed pain medications like OxyContin and Vicodin. They have become commonly abused over the past few decades, which prompted the medical community to take action. Last year, Virginia state legislators mandated that all prescribers must finish at least two hours of continuing medical education specifically on opioids within the next two-year cycle. The JMU conference was an opportunity to fulfill this state requirement. 

PA program director Jerry Weniger organized the conference to cover multiple facets of the opioid crisis, since combatting the epidemic involves a host of medical professionals. “There might be providers who are familiar with how to prescribe opioids, but the changes in laws have been rapid, and they might need an update,” Weniger offered.  “Or they haven’t considered the behavioral part, and they only worry about weaning people off the drugs. Maybe some local psychologists want to learn more about the medical side of the drugs that they’re prescribing. There’s something for everybody.”

The first speaker at the event was a pain management specialist at Sentara RMH Medical Center, Dr. Joel Hess, who discussed the pharmacology of opiates and the state and national laws around prescribing them. “Legislators are starting to change the laws to try to make it more restrictive on prescribing because of the opioid problem,” explained Weniger. “Statewide laws have been changing rapidly over the last couple of years, so it’s hard to keep up with them.”

Dr. Hess moved on to speak about surveillance of opioid usage. Physicians are able to monitor patients’ use of opioids through urine drug screens, as well as through the prescription monitoring program. “It’s a website that the state of Virginia runs, which was started over a decade ago. Prescribers, doctors and PAs have a login, and we can look someone up and the prescriptions they’ve filled for controlled substances,” said Weniger. Once someone fills their opioid prescription at a pharmacy, it is automatically logged in the system. Dr. Hess reviewed how the medical community can use this program to determine when patients may be abusing their prescriptions.

Dr. Allan Hamby, a psychiatrist at Sentara RMH Medical Center, presented information about the treatment of opioid addiction through methadone and buprenorphine, two drugs that help wean people off opioids. To provide another perspective, JMU professor and licensed clinical psychologist Gregg Henriques covered alternative forms of treatment using group and individual therapy and counseling.

Finally, special agent Josiah Schiavone provided perspectives from VA State Police on how the regional Drug and Gang Task Force works to curb local substance abuse.  Students in the PA program thought this presentation brought a new lens to the opioid addiction that they had not considered before. “We’ve covered the pharmacology of opioids in our classes, but we only hear about opioids in a medical sense,” said Grace Berardini, a PA student. “I didn’t know how this was directly affecting communities in our regional area. The conference really showed the full scope of the problem.”

The JMU Conference on Opioids provided a learning opportunity for a range of health professionals around the state of Virginia, as well as PA students. “As students, we hear a lot of talk about the magnitude of this problem, but it’s hard to understand the opioid crisis when we are not yet directly involved in it,” said PA student Kelly Schatzlein. “Going to the conference opened our eyes, and it was an important step in preparing us for what we are going to see on rotations and as physician assistants.”

The Health Resources and Services Administration grant that funded the conference provided the chance for participants to broaden their knowledge of opioid addiction and to use these new perspectives to better serve their communities. “We are the first program that received the grant to put a conference together,” Berardini added. “I feel proud of our program for being on top of this. Putting in this work shows that we are serious about moving forward on this issue.” 

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Published: Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Last Updated: Wednesday, December 9, 2020

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