Characterizing the Impact of Clinical Exposure to Patients with Opioid Use Disorder on Medical Students' Perceptions of Stigma and Patient Care

Teach Learn Med. 2023 Apr-May;35(2):128-142. doi: 10.1080/10401334.2022.2038175. Epub 2022 Mar 5.


Phenomenon: Opioid use disorder (OUD) is a growing public health crisis. Many residents and physicians do not feel comfortable working with patients with OUD. Social stigma promotes negative attitudes toward these patients and is a roadblock to delivering equitable and effective care. This study sought to (1) characterize medical students' experiences with patients with OUD, (2) understand the features that make a patient encounter memorable, (3) explore factors that influence future practice, and (4) describe the influence on stigma toward patients with OUD. Approach: A study was conducted using qualitative descriptive theory and purposive sampling of fourth-year medical students (M4s) enrolled at Wake Forest School of Medicine (WFSOM). Data collection consisted of a free-text question as a part of a larger survey to M4s in the Class of 2019 and 2020, followed by semi-structured interviews. The goal of the survey was to gain a broad understanding of student encounters with patients with OUD. The goal of the interviews was to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of these encounters on future practice and stigma. Thematic analysis was used to analyze all data. Findings: One-hundred-seventy out of 237 students (RR = 71.7%) completed the free text question describing a memorable encounter with a patient with OUD. Twelve students then completed interviews. Patient encounters occurred in three primary settings: Emergency department, inpatient clerkship, or Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) meetings during psychiatry clerkship. Clinical encounters were memorable when there was: (1) conflict with patients or teams, (2) complicated care, (3) inadequate care, and (4) relevance to the student's future career. Memorable encounters influenced future practice by changing students' approaches to: (1) future treatment, (2) future communication, or (3) allowing students to practice professionalism. Regarding opioid stigma, students reported that these encounters made them: (1) more aware of stereotypes in medicine, (2) stereotypes in their personal lives, and (3) generated actions that students want to take in the future. Insights: A single, influential clinical encounter has the potential to substantially influence medical students' approach to patients with OUD, including both clinical management and attitudes toward care. Affecting encounters increased knowledge of OUD and fostered empathy and perspective-taking. Not all encounters had a defining impact on students' stigma toward OUD. Medical schools need to create opportunities that will have lasting impact by encouraging students to fully engage with patients with OUD.

Supplemental data for this article is available online at .

Keywords: Medical education; opioid use disorder; patient care; stigma in healthcare.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Opioid-Related Disorders*
  • Patient Care
  • Psychiatry* / education
  • Social Stigma
  • Students, Medical*