The tragic death of Reggie Whitten’s son may ultimately play a part in saving the lives of many Oklahomans.
Thirteen years ago, the Oklahoma City attorney and philanthropist’s 25-year-old son, Brandon, died after crashing his motorcycle while driving under the influence of prescription drugs and alcohol.
Though grief-stricken, Whitten did not give up but he began to educate himself and others. In his son’s honor, he formed Fighting Addiction Through Education, or FATE, as a way to raise awareness and increase education about the serious epidemic, particularly in Oklahoma.
“I learned that addiction is a disease of the brain. Brandon had that disease. He was like a car without the brakes,” he says. “I found out that my family doctor didn’t know anything about addiction and that lack of knowledge about addiction was the norm."
A longtime supporter of Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences whose daughter graduated from OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2014, Whitten was invited to bring his poignant story to the medical school to launch a new course on addiction medicine.
“The data shows that Oklahoma has the biggest prescription drug problem in the country," he says. " When I was a young man in the 1970s, the No. 1 killer of young people was car accidents. Today in Oklahoma, deaths from prescription drug overdoses far exceed those from automobile accidents.”
The addiction medicine course was part of a change to OSU-COM’s curriculum designed to better prepare students to become effective physicians and to target Oklahoma’s primary health problems.
In March, OSU-COM introduced the new Addiction Medicine Focus Course, an intensive educational experience for second-year medical students aimed at building a foundation in addiction treatment for primary care physicians. The course also provided an opportunity to educate residents and faculty about the warning signs to help diagnose patients suffering from addiction.
OSU-CHS plans to incorporate addiction education throughout the curriculum in every year of medical school so that future primary care physicians will be equipped to deal with the substance abuse epidemic.
OSU-COM is among the first nationwide to create an addiction medicine course and explore additional opportunities to integrate evidence-based addiction education throughout its curriculum, says Dr. Richard Wansley, OSU-CHS associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science and coordinator of the addiction medicine course.
“Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of substance abuse and addiction to prescription drugs in the nation,” Wansley says. “Our mission to serve the health needs of our state’s residents demanded that we address this topic in the teaching program for our medical students.”
Because of Oklahoma’s well-documented problem — with one of the nation’s highest rates of non-medical use of prescription painkillers, which account for 80 percent of overdose deaths – the challenge for physicians is especially daunting.
“Becoming exposed to addiction medicine early in medical school opens our eyes to a topic that is not normally discussed out in the open,” says Rachelle David, a second-year medical
student. “Hearing from a variety of standpoints – physicians, lawyers, law enforcement and community leaders – allows us to see the bigger picture and will help us when we practice medicine.”
OSU-COM has embraced the idea that primary care physicians can be the first line of defense.
“Primary care physicians are well-positioned to recognize the risks and early signs of
addiction in their patients,” says Dr. Kayse Shrum, president of OSU Center for Health Sciences. “By integrating addiction medicine throughout our curriculum, our students will
be prepared to prevent, recognize and treat patients who are dealing with substance abuse and addiction.”
Second-year medical student Paul Atakpo said he found the discussion on physicians who struggled with addiction particularly eye-opening.
“I think we have a preconceived idea of what a person who struggles with addiction looks like and I learned that addiction is no respecter of race, gender or status,” he says. “Addiction is a problem that we are going to encounter as future physicians. I found it valuable that we received some exposure to the issue early in our program.”
Substance abuse disorders are increasingly being viewed as a medical problem and medical schools across the nation have begun to adjust the curriculum accordingly.
“Ten to 20 percent of the population is genetically predisposed to addiction. It is a disease with a stigma attached,” Whitten says.“Is there a stigma to being a diabetic or having heart disease? I don’t think so.”
He says he is heartened to see OSU-COM lead the way in addressing addiction at the primary care level.
“It’s absolutely imperative that our physicians are educated about this alarming new and growing trend,” Whitten says. “I have no doubt that this course will save lives here in Oklahoma.”