Dr. Jason Ackerman has been practicing medicine in Sheridan for the past 8 years and has been a mainstay in the Sheridan Memorial Hospital Internal Medicine Clinic. He is excited about opening an Addiction Medicine Clinic here in Sheridan. We sat down with him recently to get his thoughts on this new adventure in his career, why he is taking this leap into addiction medicine and what it means for the Sheridan community.
Q: Dr. Ackerman, tell us why you felt it was important to get this certification and open this clinic in Sheridan.
A: I started treating opiate addiction while I was in residency and continued that when we moved to Sheridan after residency. It was initially a very small part of my practice, but it began to grow more rapidly the last few years. I came to realize how underserved and undertreated patients with addiction are in our community. When I had a chance to get boarded in Addiction Medicine it seemed like a good opportunity to broaden my knowledge base and start helping more patients with a variety of addiction problems.
While it’s been needed in Sheridan and our surrounding communities for a while, it’s also been one of the most rewarding aspects of my practice. Not only is it a chance to improve patients’ health, in many cases it is truly giving people a second chance at life. I have had homeless patients find housing and start working. I have had patients go back and get college degrees and others start new careers. Parents who have lost their children due to addiction have been able to get their kids back home. They see successes that they never thought were possible and it’s amazing to be a part of that.
Q: What does it mean to see a doctor/physician who specializes in addiction? Aren’t most internists focused on physical health?
A: That certainly is our primary training and focus. But internal medicine spans a broad range of specialties. One of the great things about practicing here is that we can find our niche and develop skills in our area of interest. There is a big component of mental health in addiction, but as research progresses in the field we are learning more and more that this is a true disease process and not simply a series of bad choices. The good news is that means there are medications and therapies that we can use to help people recover and succeed.
Q: Is this a pain management clinic? What services are offered through the new clinic?
A: This is not a pain management clinic, although we have certainly helped people taper off of pain medications. Our focus is treating the disease of addiction, whether it is opioid pain medications, heroin, alcohol, stimulants, gambling – it really runs the gamut of substances and behavioral addiction.
Q: Can you talk about medication assisted therapy and what exactly is suboxone?
A: Just as some people are able to treat their diabetes with diet and exercise while others need insulin and other medications, there are a number of ways to approach the disease of addiction. Some people do well with counseling or groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. But when we start looking at the process of disease, there are some medications that can significantly improve people’s chances of recovery. Medication assisted therapy is using evidence-based, targeted medications to help people achieve that recovery. Suboxone is probably one of the best known and most effective medications. The primary component of it is buprenorphine, which is a partial opioid agonist. That’s essentially a fancy way of saying a medication that hits all the same receptors as opiates like pain medications or heroin, but turns on those receptors just enough that people do not have cravings or withdrawal symptoms. That allows people to not only remain clean and sober, but also increases their ability to incorporate all the important tools from other aspects of treatment – groups, counselors, etc. – and substantially increases the chances of long term sobriety.
Q: Are there specific areas of addiction on which you concentrate?
A: Not really. Part of that is that addiction is a broad field that seems to be evolving fairly rapidly at this point. The other part is that addictions don’t always come packaged quite as neatly as we used to think. Many people are able to get off of pain pills, only to develop an alcohol problem or a meth problem. There seems to be a genetic component and it can definitely run in families. Some people just seem to be wired to have problems and addictive tendencies with whatever substance crosses their path. I will say treating opiate addiction is very satisfying. We all see the headlines about skyrocketing fatalities from opiate overdoses. In clinic we see patients that have been using for years and cannot function without massive, potentially lethal doses of opioids in their system. They are literally a bad night or a tainted batch of pills away from dying. But when we can find the right doses and combinations of medications they are able to get clean relatively quickly. The patients frequently tell us that they feel “normal” for the first time in years.
Q: Do prospective patients need a referral to this new clinic? How does the process work?
A: We are always happy to take referrals, but you certainly don’t need one to get an appointment. People can just call us at 307.675.2674.
Q: If I have concerns about a family member or friend who may be addicted, how can I best help them?
A: That’s an incredibly difficult position to be in. Ultimately, patients with addiction need to be ready to get better. Sometimes that readiness comes with the urging of friends and family, sometimes it happens spontaneously, and sometimes a person has to hit bottom before they see that change needs to happen. I think being supportive and encouraging them to get help is really important. And if they’re just not ready at this moment, don’t give up – they will need your support when they are.
Q: Tell us a little about the partnership with Northern Wyoming Mental Health (NWMH).
A: A few years ago we realized how much better our treatment for opiate addiction would be if we teamed up. At the time I was treating opiate addiction with suboxone, but had no real links with counselors. Meanwhile they were treating a number of patients with opiate addictions but nobody to prescribe suboxone or other medications. Since then the partnership has really expanded and blossomed and covers all aspects of addiction. We have been fortunate enough to secure grant funding that can help some patients with the cost of medications and visits. We are able to have an amazing peer specialist (an addiction counselor who has recovered from addiction partially with the help of our program) and a wonderful case manager in our clinic on our main addiction treatment days. The partnership also opens up all the resources of NWMH to patients going through our program, including various group therapies, relapse prevention groups, individual counselors, and vocational rehab. I think a lot of our success stems from being able to align ourselves with their team.
Dr. Ackerman and the team at the SMH Addiction Medicine and Recovery Clinic are ready to serve the Sheridan community. If you have questions or need to schedule an appointment, please call 307.675.2674. For additional information please click here.