Words conjure up images and some words only work in specific places. For instance yelling “fire” in a crowded theater or “shark” at a crowded beach would each spread panic. But if either of those are yelled in the opposite location, they are absurd. A word that concerns us all no matter what the environment or situation is ADDICTION. We all have a reaction to that words. If you have any doubt about options for treating this problem, you must consider how to treat addicts. Another word you need to know with regard to addiction is EDUCATION. The guy you need to meet who is a true Mountain Mover is the field of Addiction is my friend Dr. Vance Shaw. Take a minute to hear what he has to say. It may very well make all the difference in your life or the life of someone you love.
BRIAN: First and foremost, thank you for taking time to talk with me. Let’s start at the beginning, where did you grow up, what was it like and how did that time in your life shape who you are?
DR. SHAW: Well, I was born in Spokane, Washington, but I spent most of my childhood in Huntsville, Alabama. My father was an engineer for NASA, in charge of testing the main Space Shuttle engines. He later supervised a portion of the Hubble Space Telescope project. Growing up in that type of scientific environment gave me an appreciation for the importance of scientific research in shaping what we believe, and what we can accomplish.
BRIAN: Your time as a practicing physician has been anything but dull. What have you done in your career leading up to this point?
DR. SHAW: Prior to going in the field of medicine, I was in the country music business in Nashville. I worked in several recording studios where artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings recorded. I did that for about 6 years, then went on to get a degree in Molecular Biology at Vanderbilt. After completing my degree, I moved to East Tennessee to attend medical school and residency here. For about 20 years after completing residency, I worked in Emergency Departments throughout the area, primarily Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton. It was during that time that I became acutely aware of the severe substance abuse problems that we have in this area, and during that time that I became trained in Addiction Medicine and began treating addicted patients.
BRIAN: You work with ETSU and the medical program there to help train future physicians and recently received an award for those efforts. Why do you take your time to do that and why is it important?
DR. SHAW: There are as many people in the United States that suffer from a substance abuse problem as have diabetes. I received thousands of hours of training on diabetes, but I didn’t receive a single hour’s training in addiction in my seven years of medical school and residency. One of the reasons we started our nonprofit clinic was to network with the University to provide an environment for medical students and residents to have an opportunity to learn about addiction, and also learn how to treat patients who suffer from this disease. We are currently the only clinical rotation available to medical students and residents in Addiction Medicine.
BRIAN: Now let’s get down to some nitty gritty. There is a war going on and this region is at ground zero. Will you please give your take on the opioid problem?
DR: SHAW: There are two types of diseases in the practice of medicine, chronic diseases that we manage long term like diabetes and high blood pressure, and diseases we try to stamp out like ebola and smallpox. If you try to treat diabetes like smallpox, all you will do is make everything worse. Addiction is caused by genetics and environment like diabetes. It is a chronic disease like diabetes. Trying to eradicate it like ebola only winds up eradicating addicts. We have to start treating addiction like the chronic disease that it is, and be willing to use new scientific techniques and effective treatments to help manage this disease. Using effective medical treatment has been shown in multiple studies to cut overdose rates by 50%, yet people are resistant to using medication to treat this disease. If we developed a drug today that cut the mortality of breast cancer by 50%, it would be on the front page of every newspaper, but now that we have a medication that has proven to cut the overdose death rate by 50% in the midst of an opiate overdose epidemic, no one wants us to use it. The main enemy we face today is ignorance and prejudice. People continue to want to treat addiction with outdated ideas and judgmental attitudes instead of sound scientific principles. Until we start basing our treatment of addiction on science, like we do in every other field of medicine, the death toll will continue to climb, and more lives and families will be destroyed.
BRIAN: It is a sad truth, but you and I both know somebody reading this needs help. What do you offer to them through your clinic and how can they begin the process of seeking help?
DR: SHAW: The main thing we offer is education. Not just for medical students and residents, but for everyone. We offer an ‘Intro to Addiction’ class every Tuesday that helps people who suffer from addiction, and their friends and family members, understand this disease. We also frequently have medical students and other health care professionals attend this class. Anyone is welcome to attend. This class is also the first step in evaluating any individual who is seeking treatment, to make sure they understand the treatments available, and what to expect from treatment. Then we thoroughly evaluate every individual seeking treatment according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine guidelines, and recommend a course of action based on that evaluation. Addiction treatment is not one size fits all, any more than you would use the same course of treatment for every case of diabetes. But the most important thing is to take that first step and become educated about your disease. It costs you nothing, and only takes an hour of your time to at least learn about this disease, whether for yourself, or for someone you love. Or if you are a medical professional, you owe it to your patients to learn more about addiction. After all, there are just as many people who suffer from addiction as suffer from diabetes, it’s just that you know the diabetics, because they don’t have to keep their disease a secret. Everyone is affected by this disease one way or another, and we all owe it to ourselves and society at large to become more educated about addiction. Again, people are dying, and families are being destroyed by this epidemic, and the best way for us to combat it is through education and awareness, something we can all be an active part of.