WVU physical therapists prepare students to fight the opioid epidemic in rural communities

WVU physical therapists prepare students to fight the opioid epidemic in rural communities

West Virginia University School of Medicine Physical Therapy faculty have developed a new curriculum that prepares physical therapy students to educate rural communities on opioid use prevention.

The coursework emphasizes pain science, community health and how physical therapists can help patients manage pain without the use of opioids.

The faculty were able to see the curriculum in action when the Division of Physical Therapy’s Class of 2021 participated in an 8–12-week rural rotation, where they completed a community-based outreach project working with a patient population of their choice.

Anne Swisher, PT, Ph.D., FAPTA, professor and project lead, explained that students were engaged with the model, in part, because they were empowered to customize their focus within the educational model, resulting in unique project ideas.

Students chose which addiction focus they wanted to study, such as prevention, co-management or recovery, and decided what population demographics to highlight.

“Our students’ creativity never ceases to surprise me,” Swisher said.

A common theme among the students’ projects included educating the public about the role physical therapists play in the health and wellness of people who experience pain, which Swisher said was one of the main motivations behind this project.

Projects included educating student-athletes about sports injury, creating social media posts to educate the public and working with local first responders to teach them about safe ways to transfer patients.

“The role of physical therapists isn’t typically well-understood by the public, especially in rural communities,” Swisher said. “This project gives our students a platform to express that we are experts in human movement and that we are there to help people optimize movement and make a positive change in their health and in their lives.”

Swisher added that this role becomes even more important through the lens of the opioid epidemic and that all of the students’ projects emphasized the importance of non-opioid treatment methods.

The model was developed by Swisher, Ralph Utzman, PT, MPH,  Ph.D., and Kimeran Evans, PT, DPT, Ph.D. The team presented their model and findings at the 2023 Symposium on Substance Abuse Research, which was held in Lincoln, Nebraska, from Nov. 7-9. The project was funded through the State Opioid Response Grant awarded to WVU.

A journal article that described the model and the process of its development was also published in the Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation Journal in 2021.

To learn more about the Division of Physical Therapy, visit medicine.wvu.edu/pt.