Ophelia, virtual provider for opioid use disorder, trains nursing students at Penn, Yale

Ophelia, a telemedicine provider of medications for opioid use disorder, is partnering with nursing schools to train students on treating addiction.

The course, said to be the first of its kind, was piloted at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing last winter with nearly two dozen students and will be expanding to the Yale School of Nursing this fall. The mandatory program includes clinician shadowing, with up to 50 hours with a mentor, and clinical case reviews.

Students will also be able to take Ophelia’s X-waiver training, after which they can secure a waiver. The training is certified by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Ophelia, operating in 14 states, believes that telemedicine is the best way to reach patients without licensed providers and maximize face time with patients.

“The critical barrier to access,” said Ophelia CEO and co-founder Zack Gray, “is simply the supply of licensed and trained clinicians.”

Less than 4% of physicians are approved to prescribe buprenorphine, and nearly half of U.S. counties lack a buprenorphine-waivered physician. 

“We think of ourselves as a training institution in addition to a medical practice,” Gray said. “Our job is to make it easier to choose clinicians than drug dealers.” 

The point of shadowing a clinician as a student is to observe the patient care journey and learn non-stigmatizing ways of treatment. “There's a difference between the didactic and the interactive” for students, explained Vice President of Clinical Operations Emily Behar, Ph.D., and Ophelia wants to “fully immerse them in the experience of working with patients.”

“The bar to pass is having the will to do it,” Gray said. 

Thus far, several students who have already completed the program have asked for work opportunities, the company said.

Registered nurse Alexandra Gillespie, who completed the program at Penn Nursing, said she noticed Ophelia providers “often were able to connect more with patients than I’ve seen at other clinical sites.” Typically, physicians have little face time with patients and are bogged down by administrative work, “so sometimes holistic care goes out of the window.” Now, in her work at a family care office, she is mindful to track social determinants of health in patients, she said.

“If someone speaks about their drug use, I’m now more prepared to deal with next steps. I would have never been interested in [opioid use disorder] before, but I loved the patient population,” Gillespie said. Medication-based treatment for opioid use provided via telehealth “is the perfect medium to treat OUD as accessibility tends to be the main barrier to entry for treatment,” she added. 

Though Ophelia is partnering with nursing schools first given that most of its own clinicians are nurse practitioners and tend to do the bulk of the prescribing, in the future, the company hopes to also partner with medical schools, Behar said.

“Even if they’re not specialized in opioid use disorder, at this point it’s impossible to practice as a nursing practitioner and not encounter some patients with opioid use disorder,” Behar said.