While the coronavirus pandemic has drawn most of the attention over the last year, the opioid pandemic and other drug abuse and addiction issues have been steadily growing in Tennessee and across the nation. Faculty from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd, community advocates, and faculty from other institutions came together Tuesday to discuss these issues and look at potential solutions.
The Symposium on Drug Misuse and Addiction was hosted by the UTHSC College of Medicine and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville College of Nursing. The two-hour symposium, which had more than 160 registrants, was organized by Burt Sharp, MD, distinguished professor in the Department of Genetics, Genomics, and Informatics and the Department of Medicine; Jennifer Tourville, DNP, CPNP, clinical assistant professor of nursing at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; and Robert Williams, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Genetics, Genomics, and Informatics.
Dr. Sharp opened the symposium, focusing on Tennessee’s situation. Overall, Tennessee saw a large increase in emergency room visits for drug overdoses in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, while total ER visits decreased because of avoidance during the pandemic. Tennessee was one of 18 States listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having a “significant increase.”
Synthetic opioids were responsible for a massive increase in deaths from 2013-2019, according to the CDC, and non-fatal emergency room visits for overdoses increased in 2020 as the pandemic progressed.
“We saw the number of emergency room visits decreasing overall at the beginning of the pandemic, but then we saw a sharp rise in visits related to drug overdoses, especially those involving opioids,” Dr. Sharp said.
UT President Randy Boyd addressed the symposium with his thoughts on Tennessee and the collaboration that he has seen so far in efforts to reduce substance misuse.
“I was so impressed when I came to UT and saw how greatly our people across campuses and partners cared about addiction and how to solve this problem,” he said. “Coming together so that we can all be aware of each other’s work is important and allows us to form a connection to tackle this issue in our state.”
Reverend Charlie Caswell, executive director for the Legacy of Legends in Memphis, offered a presentation on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the community. Caswell is a well-known community advocate and a partner to UTHSC.
“Communities are important to solving this issue, and I’m glad that UTHSC realized that neither of us can do this alone, but with a combination of their resources and our community partners, we can get this done,” he said.
Dr. Ronald Cowan, MD, PhD, Harrison Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry, and Maureen Reynolds, PhD, research associate professor of pharmaceutical science at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy, presented on diagnosing addiction and substance misuse and on addiction risks. Dr. Cowan noted the importance of switching to people-first language when discussing addiction issues. Dr. Reynolds referenced the three main areas of addiction risk: individual liability, environments, and drug properties.
“In medicine, we’re really trying to move away from talking about people with substance use disorders as though they are not people, we don’t want to boil them down to just their disorder,” Dr. Cowan said. “When you have a patient with an illness, you don’t only refer to them as their illness, and we can’t continue to do the same with those who have addiction disorders.”
Multiple UTHSC faculty members, including Dr. Williams, one of the symposium organizers; Hao Chen, MD, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Addiction Science, and Toxicology; and Kristin Hamre, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, presented research models and data on how nicotine and other drugs interact with genetics to increase the likelihood of addiction and substance abuse. These research models ranged from nicotine intake to fetal alcohol syndrome and how genetics can play a large role in determining how one becomes addicted to such substances.
“This symposium is a great look at how we are all honestly dealing with two pandemics at the same time,” Dr. Williams said. “Humans are such complex creatures that one therapy or one treatment doesn’t work for everyone. There just isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to handle these substance misuse disorders.”
Karen Derefinko, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and the Department of Pharmacology, Addiction Science, and Toxicology, spoke on combating the stigmas surrounding substance abuse in our communities. Dr. Derefinko focused on the different ways these stigmas prevent people from seeking treatment.
“Using treatments means standing up to this fear and stigma of being seen as someone with a problem,” Dr. Derefinko said. “It also requires a knowledge of treatment, overcoming poverty factors, and bypassing the old adage of quitting cold turkey.”
Dr. Sharp said he hopes these collaborations will continue and that the work being done by the groups will have far-reaching impacts on drug misuse and addiction issues in Tennessee and the surrounding areas.
A recording of the symposium can be viewed on the Addiction Symposium page.