Op-ed: Community pharmacists are foot soldiers in the war on opioid abuse

It seems not a day goes by lately that the opioid abuse crisis is not front and center in national headlines.  More and more lives are being lost to overdoses, and prescription drug abuse is devastating families and communities leading to violence, crime, and strained resources. 

State governments have implemented a variety of tactics and tools to combat the problem, from strengthening prescription drug monitoring programs to mandating limits on prescribing or executing drug take-back programs. But policy solutions can only go so far in addressing the problem.

Like other health care professionals, community pharmacists are on the front line of the prescription drug abuse war. While prescription drug monitoring programs are an important tool in pharmacists’ ability to detect potential abuse, many are taking additional hands-on approaches to confront the problem. In towns across the U.S., they’re customizing solutions to meet immediate local needs for training, referral, support, and counseling, as well as for improved access to anti-overdose drugs.

Examples abound. Here are three.

In Allentown, Pa., Medicap Pharmacy owner Pauline Vargo leads training sessions for Lehigh County Sheriff’s deputies and other local law enforcement personnel to help them recognize the symptoms of a potential overdose and properly administer naloxone, the drug antidote for reversing opioid overdoses. Vargo’s education efforts have better equipped local law enforcement and county officials to be able to react swiftly and safely in the event they witness or must respond to an overdose.

Or consider Emily Blaiklock, who oversees a unique outpatient pharmacist-run non-opioid addiction treatment program at St. Matthews Community Pharmacy in Louisville, Ky.  Working with local physicians, Blaiklock and her team manage the medication-assisted treatments of addiction for patients using a non-opioid naltrexone treatment and a combination of education, in-pharmacy appointments and follow-up phone calls, and psychosocial support and counseling.  Operating the clinic out of a community pharmacy instead of a physician’s office provides patients a more convenient and accessible location to receive treatment.  It’s also an example of the type of positive impact that collaborative care between physicians and pharmacists can have in a community.

Brian Beach of Kelley-Ross Pharmacy in Seattle also is working to break down the barriers impacting patients’ timely access to naloxone.  Working with other health care providers, pharmacies, and stakeholders, Beach and his team expanded the availability of the lifesaving naloxone treatment throughout Seattle by providing take-home kits to high-risk patients and anyone who needed it. His efforts have helped to increase community awareness about the drug’s potential and demystify the stigma associated with its usage.

These are just a few of the innovative ways community pharmacists are tackling the scourge of opioid abuse in their communities.  Community pharmacists like Vargo, Blaiklock, and Beach are often the first — and last — line of defense in preventing prescription drug abuse.  They flag suspicious or illegitimate painkiller prescriptions, work collaboratively with prescribers to ensure appropriate dosing and duration of therapy, counsel patients on the correct way to take their medications and set expectations for pain management, and often provide a safe means for individuals to dispose of unused medication in their pharmacies. 

They also see firsthand the difficulties that patients with legitimate pain medications prescriptions are facing in obtaining their medications due to stringent federal and state regulations and supply constraints that have arisen as a result of the opioid crisis.  Striking the right balance between preventing drug abuse and preserving access to pain management medications for patients with legitimate needs must include enhanced prescription drug monitoring programs and increased prescriber education.

As medication experts with years of training – and often the only health care provider in many rural or underserved communities – community pharmacists are uniquely positioned to help combat opioid abuse.  As policymakers pursue various ideas to curb and treat prescription opioid abuse, they should look to the innovative methods that problem-solving community pharmacists are already successfully implementing in their communities.


Doug Hoey is the CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association

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