Starting in the fall of 2018, Penn Nursing will offer an undergraduate elective, Opioids: From Receptors to Epidemic, which includes a lecture on overdoses. The class will be taught by Peggy Compton, PhD, the van Ameringen Chair in Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, and Heath Schmidt, PhD, Assistant Professor of Nursing. The course covers acute and chronic pain, the composition of opioids, the pathophysiology of opioid addiction, treatment options, the historical foundations of the crisis, and current policies regulating opioid distribution. While the class is geared toward nursing students, it’s open to all majors “because the implications go beyond health care,” says Compton.
Penn Nursing is also in the midst of developing two simulation programs – one in person, and one via virtual reality. In February, the School of Nursing piloted a two-hour in-person simulation for nursing students in which actors mimicked the symptoms of an opioid overdose, as well as overdoses of heroin and fentanyl, which are more potent versions of prescription opioids (many times, opioid users will switch to heroin or fentanyl if their prescription is not renewed). Students were able to practice treating these patients, including dealing with their reactions, which run the gamut from anger to distress to fear, according to Ann Marie Hoyt-Brennen, Penn’s simulation education specialist. The pilot was deemed a success and starting this summer will be a requirement in two courses, one graduate and one undergraduate.
A February 2017 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when states increased access to naloxone, opioid fatalities declined by 9 to 11 percent. Despite this, naloxone has received some negative press: critics say the opioid antagonist encourages addicts to use again. Because of this perception, said Clare Whitney, a PhD candidate at Penn Nursing, many nurses are not aware of the medication or do not know how to administer it.
“This is a really problematic narrative,” Whitney said. “The problem is not that we have a drug that can save a life. The problem is that we don’t have proper care.”