PAthways Conference helps prepare healthcare workers to tackle Substance Use Disorder

By Ryan Clark
CHS Communications Director

There is one thing Cheryl Vanderford hopes people will get from Friday’s PAthways to a Healthier Kentucky conference.


“That’s my personal goal,” said Vanderford, MPAS, PA-C, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies in the College of Health Sciences. “For us each to pause and consider what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. That’s what I try to teach my students. We never know what each other is going through.”

Vanderford is a UK PA alumna from the class of 2008 and served as a PA in the Mental Health Service at the Lexington Veterans Affairs HealthCare System, where she worked in a variety of settings, including a residential treatment program for Veterans diagnosed with PTSD and/or substance use disorders.

Working with Veterans holds a special place in Vanderford’s heart. Through that work, she received firsthand experience by providing substance use disorder treatment as a Physician Assistant. This inspired her to apply for a much-needed grant that will help the Commonwealth.

In 2020, Vanderford received a $367,000 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. 

Part of that grant funds the PAthways to a Healthier Kentucky conference, which will be held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday, at the Gatton Student Center Ballrooms, A-C (and also on Zoom).

Vanderford said two veterans in particular made a huge difference in her life.

“They taught me about free will and grace,” she said.

It’s led to what she tries to pass down to her students.

The training will provide PAs the education and training hours needed for the MAT waiver. Simply, this will give PAs the ability to prescribe buprenorphine for the treatment of opioid use disorder (OUD). (PAs that complete 24 hours can prescribe buprenorphine to 100 patients.)

This program will help those in need get the treatment they deserve, Vanderford said. Not only will this training program provide help to those with OUD, but it will also give PAs an additional skillset on the job market.

In 2021, the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet and Office of Drug Control Policy (ODCP) announced that the state’s 2020 Overdose Fatality Report showed more than 1,964 Kentuckians died from drug overdoses in 2020 — a 49 percent increase in drug overdose deaths compared to the previous year.

The reason?

According to resident cases autopsied by the Kentucky Office of the Medical Examiner and toxicology reports submitted by Kentucky coroners, the increase in the death toll was driven mostly by a rise in opioid abuse, which was found in 1,393 cases, or about 71 percent of all overdose deaths for the year.

It's numbers like this that have Kentucky consistently ranked in the top 10 nationally for opioid-related deaths.

Vanderford says this opportunity will not only have a positive impact on the students and PAs, but it will also impact the communities that are served.

“There’s always a need for more access to treatment,” she said. “We’re going to graduate 56 PAs this year. That’s 5,600 people that can be reached, just from this year’s class. This grant from SAMHSA provides training for three years and we’re going to keep the training going, even after the grant runs out. Just think about how many people can be served by our PAs.”

Vanderford noted that this grant focuses on her passion.

“While my motivation for this project comes from serving those who served us, I’m also very excited about the impact this will have on our students and those who need help,” she said.

Register here: