Historic Day for Addiction Medicine

New recognition as medical subspecialty smashes stigma and aims to expand the addiction care workforce

March 14, 2016 will go down as one of the biggest days in the history of addiction medicine. It was a day a lot of us had been working toward for many, many years.

I remember sitting in a room with two other professionals almost a decade ago talking about addiction medicine and our hopes for the future. We discussed what some of our colleagues were also contemplating—the possibility of creating accredited addiction medicine fellowships. Fast forward a few years, and the first eight addiction medicine fellowships were accredited by the American Board of Addiction Medicine (ABAM). At that time, I sat with the former CEO and Medical Director of the Betty Ford Center and looked at a map of North America. The entire West Coast did not have an accredited fellowship. It was then that the seed was planted to create our own Betty Ford Center Addiction Medicine Fellowship. It was a huge undertaking, but one that has been incredibly beneficial to us and to our field. I think back to those moments and reflect with pride on how far the field has come—now with 40 addiction medicine fellowship programs nationwide.

On March 14, the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) marked another leap forward by announcing the recognition of Addiction Medicine as a new subspecialty. Finally, addiction medicine can claim its spot among the more than 100 officially recognized medical disciplines in our country. This further legitimizes addiction as a treatable health problem and addiction medicine as a needed and bonafide area of practice. As a result, we will undoubtedly see more doctors pursuing education in addiction medicine!

You might ask yourself: Why did it take so long? How many more lives could have been helped or saved if this recognition had come sooner? What else could have been done earlier to address problems like the current opioid crisis?  I ask you to suspend those judgments for a moment and embrace the major win that this day brings.

I see medical students in our Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation medical education programs all the time—thousands over the years. It never ceases to amaze me how much they learn and how much they say it informs not just their thoughts about addiction, but about health more broadly. Though always informed and inspired, some in the past have still turned away from addiction medicine as a practice. With the opportunity now to earn an officially recognized certification, I know we will see more make that decision to embrace our field.

Some doctors wonder why any of their colleagues would want to get into the area of addiction care, saying it’s too complex, too messy, too unrewarding, etc. The reality is students exposed to addiction care learn just the opposite. But a lot of that is stigma resulting from addiction care operating on the periphery of the medical industry. The new Addiction Medicine subspecialty recognition is a huge step toward bringing addiction care more into the mainstream of medicine.

I beamed with pride as I read this reaction from Robert J. Sokol, MD, President of ABAM and The Addiction Medicine Foundation (formerly The ABAM Foundation):

“This is a great day for addiction medicine. This landmark event, more than any other, recognizes addiction as a preventable and treatable disease, helping to shed the stigma that has long plagued it.  It sends a strong message to the public that American medicine is committed to providing expert care for this disease and services designed to prevent the risky substance use that precedes it.”

Think about that for a moment and what it really means. It is a rallying call to all of us in the field to proudly continue the strong momentum we have going in educating as many people as possible, and helping the millions of addicted individuals get the treatment and ongoing help they so badly need and deserve.

I am proud to be a part of the movement. Let’s join together to keep it growing.

Joseph Skrajewski, MA, MFTI, is executive director of Medical and Professional Education at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. He heads up the Summer Institute for Medical Students, Professionals in Residence program, Addiction Medicine Fellowship, and Course on Addiction and Recovery Education, while also overseeing program design and development and medical education partnerships. Joseph serves on the board of the Desert Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and as an Adjunct Clinical Instructor of Family Medicine at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine. He has presented all over the world on numerous topics related to addiction, and is a person in long-term recovery himself. Before entering the fields of psychology and healthcare, Joseph worked on Wall Street. 
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