Drug Addiction: Performances and Public Health

Apr 29, 2011, 3:14 PM

Can theatrical roles played on a stage inform the work of drug addiction counselors? A new program is testing the theory, with some big names taking up the challenge.

Attendance at a recent D.C. performance by award-winning actress Blythe Danner consisted mostly of a very select audience—physicians and other health professionals who were invited to see the actress as part of a continuing medical education program to hone the skills needed to help patients battling drug problems.

Danner starred in Act III of Eugene O’Neil’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” which includes a poignant monologue by a morphine-addicted mother. The evening was part of the Addiction Performance Project, created by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Elisabeth Davis, M.P.H., a public health analyst at NIDA and manager of the project, says the idea came from a Harvard Medical School physician, Dr. Elizabeth Gaufberg, with whom NIDA has worked with on its medical education project. The idea was based on her experience with Outside the Wire, a social impact company that uses performances to address a variety of public health issues. Davis says the project was presented to them as an educational tool for medical students. NIDA instead seized on it as an education tool for health care professionals in the field.

“The goal, ”says Davis, is to foster “compassion, cooperation and understanding for patients living with the disease and ultimately, have more patients screened, treated or referred to substance abuse treatment.”

Nora Volkow, M.D., NIDA’s director, says primary care providers in particular can play a vital role in screening for drug abuse. “Yet, for many providers, discussing drug abuse with their patients is beyond their comfort zone, "she noted. "NIDA’s Addiction Performance Project is a creative way for doctors to earn CME credit while breaking down the stigma associated with drug addiction.”

Statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that only about ten percent of the 23 million people who could benefit from specialized treatment for alcohol or drug abuse actually receive it. Helping health care professionals feel more competent to address the issue with patients could have quite a significant impact: NIDA research has shown that screening and a brief intervention can result in significant reductions in alcohol and tobacco use.

A post-performance discussion aimed at giving confidence to health professional in their role helping patients with drug or alcohol addictions talked about:

  • How to better identify and treat drug?addicted patients in primary care settings
  • The role of individual biases and beliefs about people who abuse drugs and how these beliefs affect individual physician screening and treatment of patients
  • How to incorporate screening, intervention, and referral to treatment into primary care settings

The project, with a varying cast of performers, will continue through 2011 and 2012. The Society of General Internal Medicine will host a performance and discussion at its annual conference to be held in Phoenix next week. Davis says she hopes NIDA will also be able to post a performance online.

Follow the conversation about the Addiction Performance Project on Twitter at #nidaAPP.

Weigh In: What novel programs aimed at helping people addicted to drugs or alcohol have been created in your community?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.