Helping patients with the hidden danger in the medicine cabinet
The dangers of not discarding leftover medications are real, and the resultant diversion is fueling the opioid epidemic. In fact, more than 70% of people with prescription drug substance abuse disorders acquired their drugs not from a prescription, but by taking leftover drugs from another person without permission.
This issue is getting more attention in the mainstream media, especially as it relates to such emerging concerns as the impact It has on adolescents. A recent Forbes article, looking at two recent clinical studies on this topic, revealed the alarming statistic that 30% of adolescents misusing prescription drugs took leftover medications still in their families’ medicine cabinets. Of great concern, 70% of adolescents, who obtained these prescription drugs from within their own homes, had a substance use disorder within the past year.
Yet, despite the risks of leftover drugs, 4-out-of-10 Americans still have unneeded prescriptions — including opioids — in their homes, according to a recent consumer survey of 1,700 adults nationwide conducted by Brightline Strategies.
It’s time to give Americans a wake-up call about the dangers lurking in their medicine cabinets. As one of the professions trusted most by the public, no one is in a better position than pharmacists to educate patients not only about the risks, but also about the importance of the timely and proper disposal of leftover opioids.
Getting to the heart of the problem
The Brightline Strategies survey revealed that 62% of respondents who hold on to leftover medications do so in case a condition returns, while 37% said they are saving a prescription drug for a friend or family member in case they need it.
While the reasons that people hold on to their unused medications may make sense to them on the surface, these leftover medications not only contribute to the nation’s opioid epidemic, they increase the risks of overdoses, accidental poisonings and deaths.
What pharmacists can do
Less than one minute. That’s how long it would take for pharmacists with patient education literature, if available, to increase awareness about the importance of disposing of leftover medications as soon as they are no longer needed.
By making this practice a priority every time an opioid is dispensed, pharmacists can directly reduce the risk of opioid diversion. And, it’s important to not only educate patients about the dangers of holding on to drugs they no longer need, but also what they can do to mitigate associated risks.
For example, pharmacy and community strategies to address the problem of leftover drugs in the home typically include drug-disposal kiosks and events like the Drug Enforcement Agency’s biannual National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days. While these efforts are an important part of the solution, they rarely are convenient or readily available, which means unneeded opioids may remain in people’s homes for longer than intended.
So, it’s important to make patients aware about at-home alternatives that are growing in popularity due to their convenience and ease of use, which can increase patient engagement and adherence. In fact, in the Brightline Strategies survey, 62% of respondents with leftover medications in their homes said that at-home convenience was an important consideration when it comes to proper disposal.
At-home options, such as a powder that can be mixed with water to render unused drugs unavailable and unusable so they can be discarded in household trash, provide a way for patients to quickly, easily and safely dispose of leftover medications on demand.
Retail pharmacy giants and independents are listening to this consumer need. Currently, at least 50% of retail pharmacies are offering this type of at-home disposal solution to customers — some upon request and some automatically whenever an opioid is dispensed.
By focusing on education about these risks and the simple steps that can be taken to prevent them, pharmacists can bring the solution to the problem one patient at a time.
John Holaday is a neuropharmacologist and the founder and CEO of DisposeRx