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Finding My Way: My Non-Traditional Path to Addiction Medicine

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As an addiction medicine specialist who initially trained as a dentist and then went on to study public health, I am sometimes asked how I got to where I am now. For me, the path to addiction medicine was anything but straight, but I believe my story illustrates that changing trajectories is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it will be necessary to pivot as one’s priorities and life circumstances change. 

My Path to Addiction Medicine

Back when I was studying public health, I was required to complete an “integrating experience,” or capstone project. Given my background, I ended up conducting an extensive literature review on oral cancer prevention activities among dentists. My review focused on risk factors, such as tobacco and alcohol, which have a synergistic effect on the etiology of oral and pharyngeal cancers. I presented my findings at the end of the year and that was it. Or so I thought. 

After graduating with my MPH, I went on to a dental public health residency program in New York. A project was also required there, so I conducted a survey on tobacco cessation services among dentists in New York State. This turned out to be a natural extension of my MPH integrating experience. While conducting this project, I often thought about the fact that smoking isn’t just a bad habit, it is an addiction — and that’s what makes it hard for people to quit. 

I later went to medical school and completed a family medicine residency. The few months of psychiatry training that I had during residency were spent mostly in addiction psychiatry. This exposure got me interested in addiction medicine and I also realized that I could pursue it without necessarily becoming a psychiatrist. (Crucially, physicians from any medical specialty can go into addiction medicine, whereas completion of a psychiatry residency is required to become an addiction psychiatrist.)

My first faculty position after residency was at a new medical school that didn’t have its own faculty practice at the time, and my desire to remain clinically active led me to explore opportunities outside the institution. Somewhat serendipitously, I had the opportunity to serve as medical director of a new methadone clinic. I later worked in other addiction treatment facilities, got board-certified, and eventually became the program director of an addiction medicine fellowship. In addition to my academic and clinical roles, I also had the opportunity to serve as founding medical director of a research center at an addiction treatment facility. 

Why Addiction Medicine is a Great Fit

What may seem like a winding path to others actually turned out to be my own unique journey into the specialty that was right for me.

The emphasis in addiction medicine on attending to the whole person, which includes physical, mental, and spiritual health, is very much in line with my core values. The multidisciplinary approach to care in this specialty also allows for the incorporation of “alternative” therapies like art and music, which I believe should be an integral part of health care. 

How Others Can Learn From My Example

For those interested in pivoting to addiction medicine, there are currently two pathways to board certification: completion of a fellowship and a practice-based pathway. The practice-based pathway was recently extended till 2025, after which a fellowship will be required for board eligibility. 

Even if you are interested in a specialty other than addiction medicine, know this: Your previous experience will not have been wasted, and may very well have laid the foundation for your next endeavor. For instance, my public health education, which included training in biostatistics and epidemiology, was very useful when it came to research projects. And due to my previous training in dentistry, I had an appreciation for the importance of oral health and its connections to systemic health, and ended up leading an initiative to incorporate oral health into the curriculum for medical students. 

When I started out in my career, I had no idea about where I would end up, but looking back, I can see how all the dots are connected. My journey is one of flexibility and openness to new experiences — qualities that are key for any passionate doctor. 

How did you end up in the specialty you're in now? Share your path in the comments!

Dr. Olapeju Simoyan is the medical director of New Directions Treatment Services and a full professor in the department of psychiatry at Drexel University College of Medicine. She has received several awards, most recently the Arnold Gold Foundation’s National Humanism in Medicine Award for exceptional leadership in placing human interests, values, and dignity at the heart of every health care connection, and Pro-Health International’s Award of Excellence in Humanitarian Services. Dr. Simoyan has combined her interests in writing and photography in several books, including The Amazing World of Butterflies, Living Foolproof, and most recently, Transformation and Recovery, a workbook for patients with addictions and other behavioral disorders. Dr. Simoyan strongly believes in the need to transform education and health care, with a focus on creativity, problem solving and integration of the arts and sciences. She was a 2022–2023 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

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