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Opioids are part of a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin as well as powerful pain relievers, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and many others. Every day in the United States more than 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments for not using prescription opioids as directed. In 2015, opioids led to more than 33,000 deaths, and opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999. 

This course challenges preconceptions about addiction and about who can become addicted to opioids. One of our main goals is to reduce the stigma that exists around addiction in general, and help people learn about the multiple pathways to treatment. You will learn about these topics from a variety of medical experts and observe stories from people who have experienced addiction themselves, or who have had a family member overdose.

Material covered in this course is authoritative, evidence-based, and presented by doctors and other policy and harm reduction experts. Medical content in this course offers information for educational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for personal medical advice, which should be obtained directly from a physician.


There are three categories of graded assignments in this course: 

1. Multiple-choice questions that appear at the end of every video (50%)

These questions are intended to evaluate your understanding of the content found within each video. Each video, and therefore each multiple-choice question, map to the stated learning objectives for each lesson.

2. Self-graded writing prompts that appear once within each lesson (40%)

These questions ask you to apply what you have learned in each lesson in the context of a short research and one-paragraph writing exercise. For example, you might be asked to have a conversation with a friend, family member, or co-worker about addiction, or you might be asked to research briefly online the rates of opioid overdose in your community. If you include any personal details in these writing assignments, please only share to the extent that you feel comfortable. Your responses will only be visible to yourself and to our course team, not to other learners in the course.

If you have questions about how to use the Open Response Assessment (ORA) tool, see the online documentation from edX, or you may also post a question about the tool in the Help thread of the discussion forum addressed to the course staff using [STAFF] at the beginning of your post.

3. Syllabus Quiz (10%)

A Note about Grading

The edX platform will count your score on all graded assignments as a 0 until you work through each one within each lesson in the course. For example, a perfect score on Lesson 1 will still leave you with a very low score in the course because all of the other graded assignments are registered as a 0. Keep working through the assignments and you will see your score improve.


This course is self-paced, meaning that you may work through each lesson on your own timeline. The course will be open and active for 12 months between March 27, 2017 and March 28, 2018.  You have until March 28, 2018 to finish all graded assignments, which are required if you want to earn a Verified Certificate.


To earn an ID-Verified Certificate of completion, you must earn at least a 70% on all graded items within the course. You can find your score on the Progress page

EdX provides certificates to those who have passed the course and verified their identity. If you pass the course you are eligible for a Verified Certificate. Your certificate will indicate you have successfully completed the course, but will not include a specific letter grade.

You can find out more about self-paced courses and certification in the EdX Learner's Guide.


To register for an edX certificate, you must have webcam access as well as a photo ID. If you make payment for the edX certificate, but find that you cannot fulfill the other identity verification requirements, you have 14 days after you submit the payment, or 14 days after the start of the course, whichever comes second, to request a refund. All details about refunds are listed here.


All readings listed within each lesson of the course are optional. Graded assessments are not based upon specific content found within the readings.


Discussion questions are designed to incite participant discussion and in-depth exploration of course content. These questions will be monitored by medically-trained course staff, but will not be visible on your progress page.

The discussion forum is a unique opportunity to engage with other learners. Considering the deeply personal nature of disease and addiction, you should only share to the extent you feel comfortable. Please be respectful of other viewpoints and experiences.

Please consider the following when you post:


Stay focused. All viewpoints are welcome, but comments should remain relevant to the course material.

Be respectful. Personal attacks, profanity, and aggressive behavior are prohibited. Instigating arguments in a disrespectful way is also prohibited.

Tell the truth. Spreading misleading or false information is prohibited.

No spam. Repeated posting of content in a counter-productive manner is prohibited — this includes posts aggressively promoting services or products. 

Posts should be written in your own words. If you include a quote or reference, when possible also provide a citation (book, URL, etc).

Participate! You will get out of the discussions what you put into them.

Before posting, search the Discussion for similar questions or comments. You can always respond and/or click on the green plus button to upvote a post.

If you disagree with a post, respond using evidence and reasoning instead of personal attacks.

Before posting a comment, consider: would you say it to someone’s face? If not, we encourage that you revise it. 

Use correct grammar and spell-check your posts. Also, please do not use ALL CAPS.

This course is about a medical topic; however, please do not solicit other course participants or course moderators for medical advice within the forum.


Please limit your posts/responses to 200 words or less (by request of edX).

Use the search and engagement tools (upvote, follow for updates, flag for misuse) on the Discussion Home to find and contribute to the conversations.

A blue star on a post means a member of the course staff has endorsed it.

If you see an inappropriate post, flag it instead of adding your own commentary.

Please note that Harvard University does not endorse products or services, and HarvardX discourages endorsement of specific products or services in course discussions.  


If you have questions about the course content you can submit those questions in the Help thread of the discussion forum addressed to the course staff using [STAFF] at the beginning of your post.

If you have general feedback about the course, you can send it to our course team using the Course Feedback survey.


Lesson 1: How has opioid misuse evolved and spread? Why is this a public health crisis in America?

Describe how opioids work and why some people can easily become addicted to opioids.

Describe the history of opioid misuse in the United States.

Describe the recent geographic spread of opioid misuse, and the rise of the current opioid crisis: a national addiction/overdose problem that includes medical and non-medical opioids.

Lesson 2: Are opioids "bad" drugs, or are there appropriate ways to use them?

Describe how opioids are best used for pain management.

Describe prescription-monitoring programs, doctors’ clinical guidelines for prescribing and safety monitoring practices, and why it’s important to work closely with your doctor and pharmacist if taking an opioid.

Describe the most common side effects of opioids, particularly addiction.

Describe why the safety measure of a naloxone (Narcan) prescription may be useful for certain opioid users, and why you might want to have a prescription if someone you know is taking opioids.

Describe non-opioid options for managing pain.

Lesson 3: What counts as misuse and what can happen when you misuse opioids? 

Define misuse of opioids and the resulting tolerance, dependence, and addiction.

Describe and demonstrate how addiction is a disease of the brain.

Understand the ways in which the language used to describe addiction has changed.

Describe genetic and other personal characteristics that may make someone more likely to develop and addiction.

Describe gender differences in the development of addiction.

Describe the mental health conditions that might put someone at greater risk of developing an addiction.

Describe the environmental and social factors related to addiction.

Describe the risk factors specific to younger people (adolescents and young adults), the developing brain, and related evaluation and intervention practices for younger people.

Describe how people addicted to opioids may develop health problems related to their use (e.g. HIV or Hepatitis C), or find it hard to manage their health

Lesson 4: How does opioid addiction affect a person, their family, and the community?

Define the compound effects of opioid addiction on a person.

Define compound effects of opioid addiction on a person’s family.

Define the compound effects of opioid addiction on a person’s community, particularly the workplace.

Lesson 5: How can opioid overdose be treated and prevented?

Describe factors that put you at greater risk of opioid overdose.

Describe dangers of overdose from drugs such as fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. 

Describe what an overdose looks like.

Describe rescue treatment options for opioid overdose.

Describe how to use Narcan.

Describe how first responders and providers use Narcan to prevent death from an overdose.

Describe effective post-overdose strategies to improve recovery outcomes.

Lesson 6: How can opioid misuse and addiction be treated?

Describe how harm reduction strategies can help contain and control opioid access and misuse, and prevent overdose deaths.

Describe the role of law enforcement and the criminal justice system in addiction prevention, intervention and recovery efforts.

Describe the withdrawal and detox process from opioids.

Describe medication-assisted treatment of addiction and how to access these treatments.

Describe non-medication approaches to treating addiction and how to find these treatments.

Lesson 7: What does the process of long-term recovery from opioid addiction look like?

Describe recovery capital and the importance of tailored treatment for long-term recovery.

Describe the effectiveness of self-help in long-term recovery.

Describe the role of family in long-term recovery.

Describe the role of community in long-term recovery.


HarvardX requires individuals who enroll in its courses on edX to abide by the terms of the edX honor code. HarvardX will take appropriate corrective action in response to violations of the edX honor code, which may include dismissal from the HarvardX course; revocation of any certificates received for the HarvardX course; or other remedies as circumstances warrant. No refunds will be issued in the case of corrective action for such violations. Enrollees who are taking HarvardX courses as part of another program will also be governed by the academic policies of those programs.


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