Doctors versus Therapists: What Unique Roles Do They Play in Managing Substance Abuse?


According to the World Drug Report 2017 released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, globally almost 30 million people suffer from drug abuse and addiction. Substance abuse affects several aspects of an individual's life, making it challenging for healthcare professionals such as doctors and therapists to take a collaborative approach in screening and managing such cases.  
In addition to the family and friends, the physician and the counsellor play a crucial role in enabling a substance abuser to overcome his/her dependence on a particular drug. This article describes how both of these certified specialists help patients overcome drug abuse and addiction. 
Doctors' Role in Drug Abuse
Patients with substance abuse are quite commonly seen in the general medical practice. A physician can be highly influential in recognizing the signs of drug abuse, managing the withdrawal symptoms, and helping in the long-term care of the substance abuser. Moreover, drug abuse and addiction are chronic disorders with high remission and relapse rates. Consequently, healthcare physicians play an increasingly critical part in managing drug abuse cases. 
What Do They Manage? 
Because of a large number of drug abusers presenting themselves at hospitals, treatment centres, and workplaces, physicians are actively involved in the drug screening process to review the drug test results generated by the laboratory or the drug testing kits. For instance, in corporate drug screening programs, medical review officers (MRO) help evaluate the results generated by the oral drug test kits used for random or pre-employment drug tests. 
When an individual is being treated for drug abuse, he/she may experience withdrawal symptoms, side-effects, and life-threatening complications of the detox. Depending on the duration and the intensity of the symptoms and the complications involved, doctors manage cases of seizures, heart attacks, strokes, dehydration, delirium, and associated health conditions, namely high blood pressure, brain damage, depression, bipolar disorders, HIV, hepatitis, and hormonal imbalances. 
Though most drugs produce withdrawal symptoms that subside within two to three weeks, a few individuals may require medical assistance for a longer duration. For instance, a research-based guide published by the National Institute of Drug Abuse shares that patients put on methadone for tapering their opioid dependence need to be supervised for a minimum of 12 months. 
Thus, doctors are needed for managing the drug abuse, treating the co-occurring health issues, and supervising the individual for as long as he/she is on medications prescribed to manage his/her condition.
What Happens If They Aren't Involved? 
The risks of not involving healthcare physicians when managing drug abuse cases include several life-threatening health complications. Patients undergoing treatment for drug abuse require continuous monitoring and medical intervention when necessary. Moreover, when these patients are cared for by doctors, their families are assured of their loved ones being in safe hands. 
Also, with doctors closely monitoring the patient's condition, it becomes easy to detect and treat other comorbid conditions in their early stages. For instance, if the patient undergoing treatment for substance abuse is also in the early stages of cancer, the progression can be delayed if the malignancy is detected in time. 
Therapists' Role in Drug Abuse
Substance abuse therapists or counsellors offer individuals the necessary emotional support, resources, and judgment-free guidance, putting them on the road to faster addiction recovery.  
What Do They Manage? 
Counselling therapy is a critical part of the drug abuse management program as the psychological symptoms of withdrawal can last for a long time after the individual has stopped the illicit use of the drug. The role of a therapist is to administer cognitive behavioural therapy, family behaviour therapy, outside group support, motivational interactions, and counselling consultations, enabling the individual to manage the triggers and overcome his/her desire to go back to drugs. The therapist also has to develop a foolproof relapse prevention plan for his/her patient. 
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helps the therapist alter the individual's negative thoughts and emotions that lead to drug abuse and addiction. CBT can also be used to identify and manage comorbid mental disorders which are fairly common amongst drug abusers. 
Substance abuse not only affects the abuser but also his family members. Family behaviour therapy (FBT) is aimed at identifying and dealing with the concurrent issues and the circumstances prevailing in an individual's life. FBT helps the counselling team evaluate the patient's family dynamics and the interdependence between its members. The therapist then engages the family members and suggests behavioural strategies in order to improve the patient's home environment, encouraging him/her to overcome substance abuse. 
Thus, therapists support drug abusers with immediate intervention and long-term management of issues related to substance abuse and addiction. 
What Happens If They Aren't Involved? 
If a therapist isn't involved in the drug abuse management program there is a huge risk of relapse, dissuading the individual from adhering to the recovery strategy developed by the entire healthcare team. Though relapse isn't same as treatment failure, it delays the patient's recovery and demands several adjustments in the drug abuse management program.
Doctors and therapists have equally significant roles to play in the management of drug abuse cases. An individual who desires to overcome his/her dependence on drugs heavily depends on these substance abuse management specialists to develop a treatment and relapse prevention strategy. This article will help you appreciate how both these domain experts can contribute towards building a drug-free future for all.

(Image Credit: Pixabay)

Article last time updated on 18.05.2018.

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