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Hazel: Workforce training needed to combat addiction

Richmond Times-Dispatch - 1/11/2017

CHARLOTTESVILLE - Although the statistics are still trickling in, Virginia was on pace for a record-breaking number of drug overdose deaths in 2016, with early predictions from the Department of Health projecting a 35 percent increase over the prior year.

Most of the deaths were the result of addiction to such opioids as heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone.

Breaking the cycle of addiction was the focus of a seminar at the University of Virginia'sFontaine Research Park on Monday. William A. Hazel Jr., Virginia's secretary of health and human resources, was in town for the seminar, which looked at ways to train doctors, mental health professionals and others in the health care field to deal with addicts.

Hazel said training a "recovery workforce" will be crucial to alleviating the problem in Virginia, which has been declared a public health emergency. That includes guidelines for prescribing drugs - which are being drafted by state health officials and set for a preliminary release in February - and increased use of pain management techniques that do not involve drugs.

"Prevention of addiction is better prescribing," he said.

The current climate has created a political situation where "something must be done," Hazel said at Monday's seminar. But while many legislators focus on get-tough law enforcement measures, curbing addiction deaths - projected to surpass 1,200 in 2016, once all the data are in - also will mean addressing some of the problems at the root of addiction, not just curbing addicts' access to prescription drugs.

"Even if we cut off the supply of pills tomorrow, they'll still be addicted," Hazel said. "We have to be measured about this going forward."

One of the first steps is to come up with common training standards for all health professionals so they are all on the same page, said Jean Bennett of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association. Caregivers will need to learn to work across disciplines and provide a unified front to people who are addicted to opioids or at risk.

"We all need to know how to treat people and have the same messaging," Bennett said.

Virginia is also short of the workforce needed to deal with the epidemic. Virginia ranked fourth among all states desiring job-seekers certified in substance abuse counseling, with more than 1,200 job openings annually through 2014, according to a study published by Virginia Commonwealth University in September.

VCU has developed its own curriculum for training these professionals, ranging from non-degree coursework that can be completed online to doctoral degrees.

Several VCU employees and faculty members were on hand to share the college's model with representatives from other universities, including U.Va.

VCU currently offers addiction studies as a concentration within its bachelor's programs in psychology and health sciences. The idea is to build on existing academic programs, said Linda Zyzniewski, director of undergraduate programs in VCU's psychology department, instead of creating something new "that might become stale in a couple of years."

Mental health and health sciences form the basis for these credentials, but people can enter the field at different points in their careers, said Amy Armstrong, who heads the rehabilitation counseling department at VCU.

With the right pathways, Virginia should be able to attract job-seekers who are qualified or want to become qualified in addiction counseling.

"Not only is there an incredible need throughout the commonwealth ... this is a good career to get into," Armstrong said. "This is an incredible and meaningful career."


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