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How to Talk to Your Patients About Prescription Drug Abuse

How to Talk to Your Patients About Prescription Drug Abuse by Elements magazine |

July 24, 2019

Inside: In the midst of a growing epidemic, be prepared to navigate the issue of prescription drug abuse in your pharmacy. 

From 2006 to 2012, 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills flooded the United States, according to recently released statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration. These legal medications are just a small part of the growing problem of prescription drug abuse.

As a pharmacist dispensing these potentially addictive drugs, educating patients on the dangers of prescription drug abuse can save lives. Addiction and drug abuse can be a difficult topic to broach, but with these tips for tackling the subject, it can be a little bit easier.

Know who’s at risk

The best way to protect patients from prescription drug abuse is to know which ones are at the highest risk.

Anyone can become entangled in prescription drug abuse, but according to the Mayo Clinic teens and young adults are particularly prone. The number of older adults abusing drugs by mixing them with alcohol is also growing.

Some risk factors for prescription drug abuse are:


In 2017, a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that around 18 million people had abused prescriptions in the past year, including 2 million people who had misused prescription painkillers for the first time.

The study found that teens have particularly cavalier attitudes towards stimulants like Adderall. Older adults, who often take more than five prescriptions or supplements every day, are more likely to unintentionally misuse prescription medications, which can lead to larger health problems.

Keeping those stats in mind when you are dispensing medications can help you to give special care to the patients that need it most.

Be transparent about the dangers

When you’re dispensing drugs you know carry a particular risk of abuse, don’t sugarcoat the dangers.

Many people wrongly assume that if a medication comes from a doctor, then it is safe. Of course, that isn’t the case.

If you’re dispensing an addictive prescription, be transparent about potential negative side effects without resorting to scare tactics. A simple warning like, “Adderall will help you focus, but it can also cause problems like cardiac arrest, depression, and other problems if you don’t take it as directed,” will do the job.

The American Medical Association recommends taking a big picture view when it comes to opioid prescriptions. Make it clear that opioids are just one part of pain management, and there are many other less risky options for managing chronic pain.

Promote security and safe disposal

At the same time you dispense prescriptions, let patients know where they can dispose of them. Unused or expired prescriptions left unsecured in medicine cabinets can be risky for those looking to abuse prescription drugs.

Know where in your community patients can find prescription drug disposal boxes, and have that information readily available.

Also inform your patients that certain medications—like fentanyl, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and more—should be flushed down the toilet if a drug take-back option isn’t immediately available for unwanted prescriptions.

For the convenience of your patients, consider starting a medication disposal program in your own pharmacy. These services are relatively inexpensive, and they make it easy for patients to remove risky pharmaceuticals from their home.

While the prescriptions are still in patients’ hands, make sure they have a plan for securing them. Prescriptions are one of the most commonly stolen items during home burglaries. The FDA recommends placing high-risk medications in a home safe to keep them from disappearing.

Be open to questions

During the day, pharmacists may always feel like they are in a hurry, but not taking the time to answer patient questions—especially questions from those who are prescribed medications with a high risk of abuse—is a mistake.

Even after you’ve covered all the risks, make sure there are no unanswered questions lingering at the back of your patient’s mind.

Drug abuse and dependency are sensitive topics. Because patients are less likely to ask medical questions when they don’t have enough privacy, do your best to make them feel at ease. If you have a consultation room available, use it. If not, consider taking the conversation into another private room like your office.

Resist the urge to pass judgment, even if what you hear is concerning. Stay calm and empathetic while you go through the answers to questions and your patients will be much more receptive to your recommendations.

Discourage sharing drugs

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2013 and 2014, over 50 percent of people who used prescription pain relievers for non-medical purposes received them from friends or family.

This can be difficult to broach, because patients don’t consider their prescriptions to be dangerous, and they trust their friends and family not to take advantage of them. But patients can play a direct role in combating prescription drug abuse when they keep their prescriptions to themselves.

Make it clear that if patients are caught sharing prescription drugs, they can be convicted for dealing and possibly be sentenced to prison time.

Know addiction treatment options

Learn how to recognize prescription drug abuse. Patients visit the pharmacy far more frequently than they visit their doctor, which makes pharmacists an important first line of defense in recognizing addiction problems.

Use your state’s prescription drug monitoring program to see if your patients have any red flags on their file—things like having multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors being filled at multiple pharmacies.

Have information about treatment options readily available so that when patients with substance abuse problems are ready to seek help, they know they can come to you.

Refer patients to licensed drug counselors in your area who can help them learn strategies for dealing with addiction, and encourage them to reach out to a reliable doctor to help them during the withdrawal period, which can be potentially dangerous. As a pharmacist, you are one part of a large network of healthcare professionals that make recovery from prescription drug abuse possible.


An Independently Owned Organization Serving Independent Pharmacies

PBA Health is dedicated to helping independent pharmacies reach their full potential on the buy side of their business. The company is an independently owned pharmacy services organization based in Kansas City, Mo., that serves independent pharmacies with group purchasing services, expert contract negotiations, distribution services, and more.

PBA Health, an HDA member, operates its own VAWD-certified warehouse with more than 6,000 SKUs, including brands, generics, narcotics CII-CV, cold-storage products, and over-the-counter (OTC) products.

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