“He Bore it Like a Scarlet Letter”: Medical Student Reflections on Substance Use Disorders

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6 Scopus citations


Objective: Substance abuse in the context of the opioid crisis presents a major public health concern. Despite some evidence that medical students’ attitudes towards substance use disorders worsen during medical school, very few studies have examined how students’ early clinical experiences with substance use disorders shape their views of this clinical population. This study uses student reflective essays to explore these formative educational experiences. Methods: Using content analysis, the authors analyzed a collection of 802 medical student reflective essays written during core clerkships (excluding Psychiatry), coding for ethical and professional themes as well as descriptions of substance use disorders. In addition to the qualitative identification of themes, the authors used chi-square analysis to determine which themes had statistically significant associations with substance use disorders. Results: Fifty-three essays described patients with substance use disorders. The most common substances described were opioids (n = 25), alcohol (n = 18), and cocaine (n = 11). There were five themes statistically associated with substance use disorders (p < 0.05): (1) adequate treatment, (2) pain, (3) difficult patient, (4) jumping to conclusions, and (5) malingering. Conclusions: In the sample, students found the treatment of pain to be a significant ethical challenge related to substance use disorders. In considering a comprehensive educational plan, medical educators may need to consider educational venues outside of the Psychiatry clerkship to address substance use disorders.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)122-128
Number of pages7
JournalAcademic Psychiatry
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2020


  • Medical student education
  • Opioid epidemic
  • Stigma
  • Substance use disorders

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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