Learning to talk about drinking, drug use

nursing student talking to two women about health issues.
Under the SBIRT grant, students in seven programs at three universities learned how to screen for drug and alcohol misuse, and how to have difficult conversations with patients. Photo by Sarah Schaub, WSU Spokane.

By Addy Hatch, College of Nursing

SPOKANE, Wash. – Alcohol and drug abuse pose serious health risks. But even nurses and doctors don’t find it easy to talk to patients about their drinking or drug use.

Thanks to a federal grant, 1,200 Spokane-area students destined to become health care providers or social workers are better equipped to have that discussion.

The three-year, $780,000 grant taught students how to screen for drug and alcohol misuse, and how to have difficult conversations about it.

“It’s most important to not be judgmental,” said Kaylee Pearson, a recent Washington State University College of Nursing graduate who went through the training. “It sounds easy, but you learn certain phrases so you demonstrate caring and build rapport.”

The training also brought students from seven programs in three universities together in an interprofessional exercise. They included students in nursing, medicine, pharmacy, social work, nutrition, occupational therapy, and physician assistants from WSU, Eastern Washington University and the University of Washington’s MEDEX Northwest.

Training students across health care professions helps patients hear a consistent message, said Barbara Richardson, Ph.D., director of Riverpoint Interprofessional Education and Research at WSU.

“The person you see the most may be your pharmacist,” Richardson noted, but if he or she is delivering the same message as other health care professionals in a person’s life, it may prompt action.

It’s a public health model of addressing health problems in a comprehensive way, said Erica Tuell, a research assistant on the Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) research grant.

Students who took part did some work online, then gathered for in-person training sessions. Faculty from the various programs also were trained, and any faculty could lead the sessions.

SBIRT grant funding ends in September, but discussions are under way about incorporating lessons learned into undergraduate and graduate nursing education. The interprofessional team of faculty plan to seek future grant funding for similar programs.

Richardson said addiction touches nearly every person in some way.

“We used to look at people as either having no problem or they’re addicted, but the vast majority of people fall somewhere in between,” she said. “It’s a subject that isn’t talked about enough.”



  • Addy Hatch, communication director, WSU College of Nursing, 509-324-7340, addy.hatch@wsu.edu

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