Motivating Addicts — and Their Doctors

How doctors can be retrained to use empathy in addiction treatment programs for better success with patients and with themselves.

| Summer 2017

  • Corey Waller hopes to retrain doctors to treat addiction patients in ways that reduce physicians' stress and help the patients long-term.
    Photo by Jessica Cohen

As Corey Waller looked at his dead baby cousin, doll-like in an open casket, his aunt told him, “If you were a doctor, this wouldn’t have happened.” 

At the time, Waller was five, growing up in Austin, Texas, and could barely understand why his family was crying.

“I understood, but not emotionally. I felt sad but didn’t know why,” he said.

Yet he gathered that being a doctor would be “a good thing,” and that belief propelled him to medical school. Yet when he became a doctor, he would focus not on the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome that killed his cousin, but rather the psychology and neurochemistry of pain and trauma that would make him more emotional about the wake years later than he was at the time.

“From a neuroscience perspective, what sticks in memory is the emotional component, the instinctual emotional reaction to a memory,” said Waller. “That memory was why I wanted to be a doctor.

That coupling also typifies post traumatic stress disorder and often underlay the behavior of drug addicts who showed up repeatedly in the Spectrum Health emergency department where Waller worked from 2006 to 2011, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Of 130,000 patients passing through the emergency department each year, 20-30 percent had substance abuse disorders, said Waller.

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