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Inventing the Wheel

The University of Vermont

By Erin Post

As a family medicine physician with the Community Health Centers of Burlington, HEATHER STEIN, M.D., sees patients for the full range of medical complaints, ones that Vermont primary care physicians have treated for generations: chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, allergy woes, stomach pain, and everything in between.

But in one crucial aspect, Stein’s caseload is different than what Vermont’s doctors have faced in the past. Today, about 40 of her patients also suffer from addiction to prescription painkillers or heroin. They walk in the front door of the health center just like everyone else. She treats them with a medication called buprenorphine, which blocks the effects of the drugs they had been using, reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms. For some, this allows them to start careers, rekindle relationships with family, or simply reconnect with the self they were before addiction took hold. Stein treats their substance use but she also goes beyond this one aspect of their lives: She refers them to CHCB’s Dental Center, prescribes birth control, and helps to manage high blood pressure. For her, they’re patients just like any other — complicated and multifaceted, defined not by their diseases but by their potential.

“It’s very rewarding work,” says Stein, who is also a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the UVM Larner College of Medicine, and medical director at CHCB. “I’ve seen people move up to managerial positions, get married, buy houses. It’s fun to see people succeed and be part of that process.”

Stein is at the vanguard of a new way of treating addiction, in a state that is a national leader in its innovative approach to a public health crisis.

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