Immersive Summer Program Exposes Students to Realities of Addiction
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Immersive Summer Program Exposes Students to Realities of Addiction


April 19, 2024
Row of pill bottles on counter top

One in seven Americans aged 12 or older has reported experiencing a substance use disorder (SUD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A pervasive issue permeating communities large and small, recognizing the effects—and impact—of addiction and substance abuse has become a critical need for physicians, regardless of specialty. 

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation (HBBF), the country’s leading provider of comprehensive behavioral health care with treatment centers and telehealth services nationwide, is working to accomplish that goal by exposing medical students to the realities of addiction and substance abuse through the personal experiences of patients in treatment and with experts in addiction and SUDs. The organization recently announced the selection of six Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) students to participate in a competitive immersion program called the Summer Institute for Medical Students (SIMS).

Student doctors Chloe Hriso (DO ‘25), Emily Andrews (DO ‘25), Kevin Hauns (DO ‘27), Ellen Kjoller (DO ‘25), Christopher Stegmuller (DO ‘27) and Teresa Liu (DO ‘25) were chosen for the SIMS program from a competitive field of qualified applicants.

“We are grateful and appreciative for our partnership and collaboration with PCOM,” said Joseph Skrajewski, executive director of medical and professional education at HBBF. “Over the past 20 years, more than 100 outstanding medical students from PCOM have received scholarships to participate in our Summer Institute. This weeklong immersion program helps them learn about substance use disorders through the eyes and experiences of those in treatment.”

“Our partnership is valued and cherished, as it has led to positive change and improvements in health care as a whole,” he added.

As part of the program, students will spend five days on-site at the HBBF location in Rancho Mirage, California. Over the course of the five days, they’ll learn from addiction experts, staff, and patients, including spending time on treatment units with patient populations. They will also participate in group therapy, patient lectures, and join patients for meals.

“With this program, you're actually experiencing it from the patient's perspective,” said Stegmuller. “Anyone could have an issue with substance abuse, and I hope this opportunity allows us to gain more empathy and then take that into practice.”

Afternoons are spent on didactics with clinicians and staff covering core concepts in addiction medicine, epidemiological trends and emerging threats, the HBFF continuum of care model, and evidence-based interventions and best practices using American Society of Addiction Medicine criteria. “Transformative” and “life-changing” are the most common descriptions of this program, according to HBBF.

The selected students are grateful for the opportunity. “I wanted to be able to be in an environment where I could learn from patients and with providers who are skilled in this treatment,” said Kjoller.

Hauns, who has a PhD in molecular and cellular biology and spent 12 years in the U.S. Army before entering PCOM, is hopeful the experience will ultimately make him a better physician.

“I have friends who are in various 12-step programs, and I find those people to be more compassionate, more empathetic, and more in tune with human relationships than the average person. I find that fascinating,” he said. “I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity for me as a human, as a scientist, and as a future clinician to see the beginnings of addiction and where the road to recovery starts.”

“Many times physicians make recommendations to their patients without ever knowing the experience of those recommendations,” added Liu. “It's humbling to be able to see it from the patient's perspective.”

Many of the selected students learned about the SIMS opportunity through the addiction medicine course led by Professor of Clinical Pharmacology Frederick J. Goldstein, PhD, FCP.

“I took the addiction medicine course last year, and it was such a wonderful experience,” said Hriso. “There have been moments throughout my life where I've held space for others who have had loved ones experiencing addiction or substance use and the effects of that, and I’ve always been very curious about addiction because it's so pervasive. I felt like this course would better equip me going into my third year, residency, and then, ultimately, my career as a physician. No matter what specialty I go into, to have that perspective on addiction will be important.”

Pill bottle on its side

The course, developed in 2022, was the idea of PCOM students Kayleigh VanDuzer (DO ‘24), Christopher Sutera (DO ‘24), Anna Klunk (DO ‘24) and Rachel Caulkins (DO ‘24) based on their experience participating in the SIMS program. As part of the course, students are required to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or volunteer at Prevention Point, a Philadelphia-area nonprofit providing harm reduction services.

“One of the things that was so important to us in developing this course—and was a direct result of meeting patients and hearing their stories through the SIMS opportunity—was remembering that these patients are at their lowest point,” said VanDuzer. “They would say to us, ‘I'm better than this. I'm more than this. I am more than I am at my lowest,’ so we really wanted to incorporate that into the course.”

Dr. Goldstein hopes that through the addiction medicine course and opportunities like the SIMS program, students gain a deeper understanding of the process of addiction. “It’s not just an urban problem. It’s also suburban, it’s rural—it’s everywhere. It goes across geography,” he said. “I want the students to be aware of these types of issues in their communities.”

Over the years, more than 100 PCOM students have been selected for the SIMS program, demonstrating the high demand for their participation in this unique experience. Personal essays, a key part of the application requirements for the program, have been particularly impactful.

“[PCOM students] allow themselves to be open and authentic and speak from the heart,” said Skrajewski, of HBBF. “Their backgrounds and stories are fascinating, with many of them coming from humble beginnings which shape how they view the world. They are thriving today and are excited about their futures and all that entails. They look forward to the incredible impact they will have on their patients, healthcare, and the world as a whole. They’re a breath of fresh air.”

The SIMS program will run for two sessions, May 20-24, 2024, and July 22-26, 2024.

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    For the past 125 years, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) has trained thousands of highly competent, caring physicians, health practitioners and behavioral scientists who practice a “whole person” approach to care—treating people, not just symptoms. PCOM, a private, not-for-profit accredited institution of higher education, operates three campuses (PCOM, PCOM Georgia and PCOM South Georgia) and offers doctoral degrees in clinical psychology, educational psychology, osteopathic medicine, pharmacy, physical therapy, and school psychology. The college also offers graduate degrees in applied behavior analysis, applied positive psychology, biomedical sciences, forensic medicine, medical laboratory science, mental health counseling, physician assistant studies, and school psychology. PCOM students learn the importance of health promotion, research, education and service to the community. Through its community-based Healthcare Centers, PCOM provides care to medically underserved populations. For more information, visit pcom.edu or call 215-871-6100.

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