Health sciences students value team approach to learning about opioids

Health Sciences IPE class
Students from the colleges of medicine, nursing and pharmacy, plus students from Eastern Washington University, took part in training on how to treat patients who use opioids in January and February 2019.

Teaching future nurses, doctors, pharmacists, social workers and addiction studies specialists together about opioid use for pain could result in better teamwork for healthcare professionals and potentially better care for patients.

Marian Wilson, PhD, RN, associate professor at the Washington State University College of Nursing, led development of a manuscript evaluating interprofessional education on opioids and chronic pain, recently published in the journal Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning.

Students from five programs at two universities were brought together to evaluate the case of a patient with chronic pain and potential opioid misuse, and to come up with a care plan. They talked in small groups about each profession’s roles and responsibilities when providing care, and in large groups about avoiding stigmatizing language.

The exercise had a couple of aims, Wilson said.

The researchers wanted students from different professions to have a common, basic understanding of opioid use for chronic pain.

“We’re also trying to get students to feel that sense of appreciation for other disciplines before they get out into the working world,” Wilson said.

The interprofessional team leading the project included Barbara Richardson, PhD, RN, and Brenda Bray, MPH, BPharm, from WSU’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine; Connie Remsberg, PhD, PharmD from WSU’s College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences; and Rie Kobayashi, PhD, MSW from Eastern Washington University’s School of Social Work. The team has been working together for several years on projects promoting teamwork among health science students in response to substance use concerns.

Students who participated in the most recent project had varying levels of knowledge of substance use when they began. They all reported increasing that knowledge, though results varied between professions. For example, medical students came into the exercise with the highest baseline knowledge of opioids so unsurprisingly reported the lowest perceived improvements in knowledge.

Students said the most valuable aspect of the exercise was working with students from other professions, and the most frequent suggestion was to increase the time allotted for teamwork.

The study suggests that students working together can expand their perspectives and get more comfortable with collaborative care planning.

Said Wilson, “Our team has created opportunities for students to come together and really think about how to talk to people who come to them requesting opioids. We hope these interactions will make students more open-minded and more prepared to care for those patients.”

Interprofessional training available:

The interprofessional curriculum developed for this study is available to students nationwide. Training can also be tailored to healthcare clinics. For information on these opportunities visit

The recent publication was a result of contracted work with the Washington State Department of Health after identifying a need to teach health science students more consistently how to care for patients with pain who take opioid medicines. This initial project led to two federally funded grants that are now underway and added more WSU health science faculty to the team, including Dawn Dewitt, M.D. as project director of a 5-year, $1.9 million project titled Rethinking Education on Substance use through inter-Professional Education and Rural Community Training (RESPECT) funded by US Health & Human Services’ Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA). Dr. Wilson is project director of a 2-year, $199,000 project titled Re-thinking Education on Substance Use with Inter-Professional Education and Collaborative Teams using Medication-Assisted Treatment (RESPECT-MAT) funded by the US Department of Health Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA)