How raising her hand is strengthening our country’s addiction medicine workforce

July 27, 2021

‘You can’t train medical students in addiction if you don’t have trained faculty’

Board-certified Addiction Medicine Physician Cara Poland, MD, MEd, FACP, DFASAM wanted the State of Michigan to train a future generation of physicians to treat substance use disorders, but first, she realized that Michigan’s medical schools needed core faculty. Like nearly every state in the United States, Michigan is seeing staggering increases in overdose due to illicitly manufactured fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methamphetamine, and cocaine. Prescription opioid-related overdose and alcohol use disorder also remain top issues in Michigan.

“In 2018, during a statewide meeting of the seven medical schools, I asked how many schools had core faculty to teach addiction. Only one did,” Dr. Poland said. “Now, almost all do. It sounds obvious, but you can’t train medical students in addiction if you don’t have trained faculty.”

Dr. Poland, Assistant Professor of Women’s Health at Michigan State University, said that the 2018 meeting was eye-opening for everyone. The state had been working through multiple efforts to increase access to evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs), but it hadn’t considered the role of medical schools and residency programs.

“We had a blind spot, but we all had that ah-ha moment when we realized we could do better for our communities if we just built it into the curricula.”

Given the relative lack of examples across the board, the Michigan physicians and deans realized that it was up to them to act. Through utilization of State Opioid Response funds, a collaboration was born: MI CARES. Led by Dr. Poland, the program not only trains physician-level addiction specialists in Michigan but across the country. Nearly 400 physicians in 43 states are currently on the pathway to becoming board-certified in addiction medicine. Michigan State University’s MD and DO colleges also began implementing curricular changes to offer more training in treating persons with substance use disorders to their medical students. Student response has been overwhelmingly positive. Of the inaugural 36 first-year elective students taught by Dr. Poland and Jamie Alan, RPh, PharmD, PhD, all 36 stated that they would recommend the elective to a colleague.

“We didn’t figure it out overnight, but we’re on a great path. I also realize that not all of our students and residents will choose addiction medicine as their career,” said Dr. Poland. “But all of them—whether they become surgeons, Ob-gyns, family physicians, general internists or any other specialty—will be able to better serve their patients.”

Dr. Poland emphasized that the training being done in Michigan builds on a foundation of medical evidence, non-stigmatizing practice, and the recognition that a patient with an SUD is like any other patient with a chronic disease. Follow-up surveys given to students are also helping Dr. Poland and other faculty evaluate the coursework and the students’ perceptions of patients with an SUD, the role of treatment, and addiction medicine overall.

Among the students’ responses:

  • Amazing intersession! Completely changed my mindset and understanding of patients with SUDs. The PCSS training we completed should be mandatory for all ECE students. Extremely valuable.
  • Dr. Alan and Dr. Poland are both extremely passionate about the topic, and it came through and made the class interesting and enjoyable.
  • This was fantastic!! I absolutely loved this intersession, and Dr Poland & Dr Alan are amazing! They made the zoom time together not only informative and engaging but truly fun.
  • This was probably my favorite intersession and I can’t say enough positive things about it. Just keep it up! I appreciate the work that everyone put in to make this intersession possible.
  • This was the best intersession I have taken. The combination of patient care, board cases, and training was great. Also, I wish Dr. Poland and Dr. Alan could teach all of my classes!

“I’m grateful for my co-faculty and the students who challenge themselves and are open to learning a field of medicine that is incredibly rewarding,” said Dr. Poland. “And as faculty, I need to learn how to continue to be better for my students. What we’re building at the medical school will resonate throughout the state, so we must always strive to improve.”

To learn more about MI CARES, please visit

Dr. Poland’s brother Max died of a substance use disorder, and she dedicates her life’s work to him.

More about Dr. Cara Poland: Nationally selected to the inaugural class of Addiction Medicine fellows at Boston Medical Center, Dr. Poland is currently the Principal Investigator of multiple private and federally funded grants, including MI CARES, and a special interest grant, GREAT MOMs, treating pregnant people and their families living with a substance use disorder.

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