NKU looks to educate next generation of professionals to handle opioid crisis

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- Soon-to-be nurse Emily Greis knows it's inevitable that she will care for a patient with an addiction.

Greis, who is weeks away from starting her career at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, said she had never dealt with substance use disorders until she had hands-on experience in her classes at Northern Kentucky University. 

The 22-year-old said she learned how to identify at-risk patients, assess lifestyle choices and talk to people about how substance use affects their health through the Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment Program -- also known as SBIRT.

“People really aren’t comfortable just straight-up saying, ‘Hey, I do drugs. I drink a lot of alcohol’ … now I know that I can talk to patients about it,” Greis said. “Healthcare professionals have to be at the forefront of taking care of people in hard situations.”

Provost Sue Ott Rowlands said she knows graduates working in the region will have to be equipped to deal with the opioid crisis and the slew of problems addiction creates, which is why she has supported curriculum like a proposed micro-credential in Substance Use Disorder and a Bachelor’s degree in Human Services and Addictions. 

Ott Rowlands said she expects those programs to expand, especially with the opening of the $105 million Health Innovation Center in the summer.  

The facility boasts 125,000 square feet that includes 21 classrooms, 3,000 square feet of simulation labs, space for up to 50 hospital beds and imaging suites -- all furnished with state-of-the-art technology. A $97 million state allocation and an $8 million gift from St. Elizabeth Healthcare funded the building. 

‘We know there is a need’ 

Many universities across the country are exploring initiatives to alleviate the addiction crisis, Ott Rowlands said. NKU, which is just seven miles south of Cincinnati, is positioned in a region plagued by heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil addiction.

For Ott Rowlands, preparing graduates to deal with the crisis is no longer an initiative; it’s a “mandate” and an “obligation.” 

“It’s very clear that this is one of our greatest needs … to help families that are being torn apart by this,” Ott Rowlands said. “We’ll see rises in additional diseases like HIV and hepatitis, and we know that all of that is coming and we’re seeing it already. 

“(This) means we really need to up our production of qualified graduates in these areas.”

Dr. Gannon Tagher, interim chair for the Department of Nursing, hopes collaboration within the walls of the Health Innovation Center will not only prepare graduates, but also bring evidence-based solutions for the opioid crisis. 

Tagher, whose background is in pediatrics, became interested in the opioid epidemic as it relates to babies exposed to opioids in utero. Tagher has researched neonatal abstinence syndrome (when newborns experience withdrawal symptoms after opioid exposure) as well as the barriers pregnant women face when seeking treatment. Tagher said she is hopeful the Health Innovation Center will facilitate more research in this realm.  

GALLERY: Your first look at NKU's Health Innovation Center

Research surrounding medication-assisted treatment -- the use of drugs like Vivitrol and Suboxone to curb cravings -- is also on the horizon. 

Students in fields from nursing to psychology to social work to criminal justice will be able to conduct research and collaborate, which is key in determining best practices on how to treat substance use disorder, how to prevent overdoses and how to prevent relapse, Tagher said. 

“In healthcare, when you work in silos, you’re not helping the patient … I as a nurse don’t have the same expertise as a social worker or a counselor,” Tagher said. “When we work together and when we collaborate, we provide better outcomes.” 

‘In order to tackle it, we need to have our students understand it’ 

The overall goal, Tagher said, is to improve access to treatment. She said research will focus on access to medication assisted treatment and other types of care coordination needed to help the user achieve sobriety. 

Ott Rowlands said she sees the university’s programs and research as a way to help restore strength in the community. 

“Community is really the solution. I think there’s a lot to that," Ott Rowlands said. "We’re not only educating the next generation of practitioners -- we’re educating the next generation of voters and individuals who are committed to … the well being of those among us who are struggling. We think it’s an education of the whole person as well and our ability to stay strong as a community. That’s critical.” 

Part of that education is encouraging empathy and understanding. Tagher puts it simply: If you don’t understand addiction, you don’t understand what the user is going through. 

“Our goal is to have the healthcare force not be judgemental of those that are suffering from substance use disorder," Tagher said. "We don’t know what put them there. We don’t know the background story. We don’t want our healthcare workers to be judgemental. We want them to treat these patients like they would treat anybody else. 

“Part of that then is understanding what is behind substance use disorder … in order to tackle it, we need to have our students understand it.” 

NKU offers the following programs and courses related to addiction: 

Current programs:

  • BS degree in Human Services and Addictions: 30 enrolled students (includes all the training required to receive specialized certification in addictions treatment at the bachelor’s level)
  • Minor Human Services and Addictions: 120 students enrolled

Students in the following three programs take basic training in addictions:

  • Bachelor of Social Work: 297 students enrolled
  • Master of Social Work: 104 students enrolled
  • Master of School Counseling: 38 students enrolled
  • Master of Clinical Mental Health Counseling: 52 students enrolled

Approved Programs:

  • Addiction research and practice

Proposed programs:   

  • Micro credential in Substance Use Disorder (Not approved yet)
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