Pharmacy student’s summer experience proves pivotal in his career development

Partnering with a patient at the Hazelden Betty Ford Summer Institute for Medical Students program helped Raymond Otieno better empathize and respect patients dealing with substance use disorder, as he got to experience the recovery journey more personally.

8 November 2022

Raymond Otieno is a second-year pharmacy student at the University of Alberta who recently took part in the Hazelden Betty Ford Summer Institute for Medical Students (SIMS) program — a weeklong experiential program that walks participants through the treatment process for people dealing with substance use disorder (SUD). We caught up with him to ask about his experience.

What drew you to take part in this program?
I’ve always been interested in how psychological conditions are treated. Patients with SUD bear a huge level of responsibility in their recovery that extends beyond adherence to their medication regimen and non-pharmacological treatments. I wanted to learn how to better support this patient population by increasing my comfort level when providing care and understanding their experience during the recovery process. 

Tell us about your experience. 
I had a phenomenal experience and was amazed at how a weeklong program could be so pivotal in my career development. Each participant was paired with a patient for the week and attended that patient’s group sessions, creating a meaningful and immersive experience. These sessions were powerful and increased my empathy for the patients due to how relatable their experiences were. Both the didactic lectures and patient shadowing resulted in rich discussions that inspired deep reflection. And the other participants allowed for great friendships to be formed and memories to be made. 

What did you learn?
In addition to building on my understanding of trauma-informed care, I gained a wealth of information that will complement the SUD components of my curriculum, including:

  • Harm reduction and abstinence are more of a gradient and both patients and clinicians can have different definitions of what abstinence looks like. Various treatment facilities take different approaches to the treatment of SUD, shaped by their perspective on addiction and how they define abstinence. 
  • By being paired with a patient for the week, I gained a personal understanding of what they undergo during their treatment and how it affects them and those close to them. 
  • I was astounded by how many triggers individuals with SUD experience. Alcohol is heavily ingrained in our culture, whether it’s grocery shopping, waiting to board a flight at an airport, or attending an event or celebration. This taught me how much self-control and discipline people with SUD must constantly display to suppress their cravings.
  • The treatment facility incorporates principles from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) — such as the 12 Steps — into their treatment approach. Learning about the praises and criticisms of AA was quite enlightening because it led to further dialogue about how different mindsets towards addiction can change the goals of therapy. 
  • I was amazed at how stigmatizing language is used by health care practitioners in formal settings and the health implications of that behaviour. I also learned that there are stigmatizing terms, such as relapse or codependency, that I needed to remove from my vocabulary. 
  • AA members use the unforgettable phrase “calling a friend of Bill” to request a fellow member come to support them in preventing a recurrence of substance use. Listening to their testimonies really displayed the power of community when overcoming adversities.

How will you apply what you learned to your professional and student life?
I’m more encouraged to have genuine conversations with my patients to build rapport and learn about them as people, enhancing my motivational interviewing skills with ambivalent patients and increasing trust that I’m there to help them. With increased empathy, I’m more prone to advocate for their health and eliminate barriers to quality health care. I aim to prevent the language we use from biasing our thinking and negatively impacting the quality of care we provide to patients. I want to converse with my peers about how we can unlearn behaviours that may trigger people in recovery, and normalize seeking help for SUD.

Would you recommend that students take part in these activities?
While the SIMS program may be tailored towards medical students, I recommend pharmacy students with an interest in SUD management take part in the program because the knowledge and experience gained is relevant to our role. This program allows us to gain an appreciation for the predominantly non-pharmacological approaches to SUD treatment. 

Where did you experience the most personal growth?
Through introspection and journaling, I became comfortable dissecting both my positive and negative reactions and emotions, allowing me to be more open with others about my vulnerabilities. This has been quite beneficial in both my personal and professional life.