B.C.'s future doctors are starting their career in the middle of an opioid crisis. Here's how they'll solve it

Medical students from the University of British Columbia travelled to Victoria Monday to lobby the provincial government for action on the opioid crisis.

The 36 students asked the government for better access to comprehensive pain management, enhanced continuity of care as patients transition from hospital to community, an evaluation of how access to supervised injectable heroin can be increased and that social factors like poverty or inadequate housing be acknowledged as an element of substance use disorders.

"We're going to inherit the health-care system," said Alexander Rebchuk, media coordinator with UBC Medicine's Political Advocacy Committee.  "So I think it's important that we share our voices and advocate for what we believe is best for patients."

Last year in B.C. 914 people died from an illicit drug overdose.

The B.C. Coroner's Service cannot confirm whether these deaths were tied to fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that's deadlier than heroin. However, the proportion of illicit drug overdose deaths in which fentanyl was detected will be available in March.

Tomorrow's physicians are already eyeing how they'll tackle the opioid crisis.

Emma Mitchell is the senior chair of UBC Medicine's Political Advocacy Committee. It's her job to take the pulse of what most concerns the medical students at UBC. This year, the opioid crisis was their pick for their annual lobby day.

"I've seen people in my community through places I volunteer or through clinical placements who have had friends and family pass away because of the opioid crisis," she said.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Federation of Medical Students lobbied the federal government on the opioid crisis as well.

Many people who end up addicted to street opioids have used to pain-numbing prescription opioids first.

The UBC medical students want to see the province support a multi-disciplinary pain management strategy for patients, including access to physiotherapy and psychiatry to complement painkilling drugs.

"So that looks like ensuring there's more equitable access to chronic pain management across different areas of the province, and not just in urban areas," Mitchell said.

The B.C. ministry of health said in a statement it has explored the possibility of a provincial pain strategy at the Pain BC summit earlier this month

"We recognize that chronic pain is very difficult to deal with, and that's why we support programs and services to help individuals manage it," the ministry said in a statement.

They also want to see social factors included in the province's plan to address addictions.

"As medical students, we see poverty and inadequate housing as inextricably linked to what's happening for people who use drugs in our province. We'd like that to be a bigger part of the conversation"

The B.C. ministry of health said it recognizes the need for a stronger cross-government approach to better coordinate mental health and substance use services.

Mitchell said her classmates also want the province to evaluate how access to supervised injectable heroin lessens the risk of overdose deaths.

The health ministry responded that B.C. is a leader in injectable opioid therapy, but that more work needs to be done to implement it across the province.

"Our province is also the only jurisdiction in Canada that provides diacetylmorphine and hydromorphone for opioid use disorder treatment," their statement said. "Providence Crosstown Clinic is the only health service delivery location that is getting practical, on-the-ground experience working with these injectable therapies."

On Feb. 17, B.C. signed a health-care deal with the federal government that included $10 million to manage the opioid crisis.

Mitchell says medical students like herself can help direct the province's attention on how those funds could be used.  

"One of the things that we try to learn as medical students throughout our four years is how to better advocate for our future patients and for the health of the communities that we work and live in," she said.

Megan Devlin is a multimedia journalist based in Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter @MegDevlinn.

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Image: Alexander Rebchuk.

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