Cross-disciplinary approach seeks to revolutionize addiction treatment

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New Master of Addiction Science seeks to revolutionize addiction treatment

The first degree of its kind at a major university is a cross-disciplinary curriculum partnership between the USC Mann School of Pharmacy, USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, and Keck School of Medicine of USC.
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Over 20 million people in the United States were diagnosed with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) in 2019, yet only 10% of these people received treatment. In 2021, an estimated 107,000 people died of drug overdoses, while every year 95,000 people are estimated to die from alcohol-related causes, making it the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.

The USC Institute for Addiction Science (IAS) aims to revolutionize the way substance use is discussed, treated and prevented through a new Master of Addiction Science (MAS), the first degree of its kind to be offered at a major university, melding pharmaceutical, medicine and social work together. The new program, which recently opened enrollment for fall 2023, is a cross-disciplinary curriculum partnership between the USC Alfred E. Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, and Keck School of Medicine of USC Department of Population and Public Health Sciences.

“We’re expecting that the students who graduate from our program will be able to elevate the field, and really apply transformative change to the nature of addiction treatment in this country,” said Jennifer Lewis, associate teaching professor at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and one of the collaborators in the development of the curriculum for the MAS degree. “We all need to recognize the complexity of addiction. None of us has the key to solving this tremendous social problem alone. The key is working together to make an impact.”

Breaking the barriers between disciplines

Treatment for addiction, like the majority of the health care system, is largely based on a siloed structure of specialists who each treat their own aspect of a patient’s addiction using only the tools within their discipline. The Master of Addiction Science seeks to create a new integrated system of care model that blends science-based disciplines together, providing practitioners with an ability to co-deliver treatment and prevention for greater impact and increased patient satisfaction, while also working closely with researchers to explore emerging scientific developments.

Students in the MAS program can choose courses spanning across 18 schools at USC, and an option to pursue clinical or research tracks. The MAS fits within USC’s priority to leverage cross-campus collaboration for both faculty and students, drawing on the strengths and perspectives of multiple disciplines to create solutions to challenging societal issues. MAS curriculum is focused on examining a wide variety of addictions — from opioids and alcohol to vaping and gambling — with myriad approaches to prevention and treatment. Students will develop the skills to translate research theory into clinical practice that is unique to an individual patient and their history, making it a true “bench to bedside” program.

“We are bridging the gap between science and practice. We’re able to bring together people who are out in the field as well as people who are in the lab and really build a conversation that makes for a better application of scientific evidence and real-world experience,” said Terry Church, assistant professor of regulatory and quality sciences at the USC Mann School of Pharmacy and one of the lead MAS curriculum architects. “For me, it’s a great place to be a scientist because it allows me to build creatively from the ideas of others. It makes for a broad view and I think that’s truly how we’re going to solve some of these larger problems in the world.”

Cell to society comprehensive approach to addiction

The causes of addiction and substance use disorders are multifaceted, often interdependent and not fully understood by current scientific research. Some people may have a strong genetic predisposition to addiction, while others appear to be influenced by their environment, and still others may have developed damaging habits and behaviors over time. To address the many forms in which addiction can present, the MAS program takes a cell to society approach that spans from cellular biology to social and physical environmental factors to behavioral norms and government policies. Taken together, this allows for a more comprehensive look at addiction from many angles.

“Addiction isn’t just about neurobiology or psychology or public health or any one component, layer, or discipline,” said Jessica Barrington-Trimis, associate professor of population and public health sciences at Keck and the third member of the MAS curriculum development team. “In order to fully understand the impact of addiction and how to positively work toward reducing the epidemic of addiction, students need to understand addiction science from multiple perspectives and fields of study, from the underlying biological processes relevant to addiction to the overall impact on society.”

This cutting-edge, transdisciplinary approach to addiction science also increases the potential career paths for graduates of the MAS program, including clinical positions interacting directly with those seeking treatment, administration positions in recovery-related fields, research appointments across disciplines, and high-level policy development opportunities.

Recognizing the importance of social determinants of health in addiction

As social determinants of health (SDOH) are increasingly recognized for their influence on a variety of mental and physical health conditions, social work is a core component of health care teams providing expertise on treating individual and societal risk factors. Environment and lived experiences are both predictors associated with addiction, including the socioeconomic disparities frequently experienced by people of color and other marginalized groups. Studies show that SDOH can actually alter DNA and other core elements of physical health and development. The expertise of social workers in SDOH makes this discipline an important element in addiction prevention and treatment.

“Social work has traditionally looked at biopsychosocial or systems-dynamic approaches to problems that are more comprehensive and target multiple levels of abstraction,” said John Clapp, associate director of the Institute for Addiction Science and the Lenore Stein-Wood and William S. Wood Professor of School Behavioral Health at USC Social Work. “Historically, sociologists would have focused only on community and policy, public health would focus on macro policy and economics, and psychologists focus on the biological and behavioral parts. Social workers design interventions that meet the complexity of the problem across disciplines and from the micro to the macro.”

Social workers also bring a spectrum of services to the client relationship, doing everything from helping clients meet their essential needs such as housing and food to addressing mental health and addiction cravings using the latest evidence-based interventions. This broad skillset is particularly useful with the treatment and prevention of addiction, where the problem can be impacted by chronic environmental factors that generate further negative outcomes for an individual’s life, making an integrated, comprehensive approach essential.

“I wish there were more disciplines like social work, which is already transdisciplinary,” Church said. “For me, including social work in this degree program was very important. Their work is dedicated to really helping people get better across different aspects of their lives.”

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