PHARMACISTS ON THE FRONT LINES: OPIOID EPIDEMIC

Opioids are drugs that need to be cultivated from a plant and are traditionally used for pain relief and treatment. When used for pain control, opioids lessen discomfort by intercept the message and block the pain sensor from reaching the brain. One of the reasons this process can be so deadly is that the drug binds to opioid receptors on the brain that are linked directly with our brain stem, where the body’s autonomic functioning skills are held, such as breathing and heart rate.

Pharmacists are an essential part of the health care team. On the front lines of dispensing opioid pain medications and providing medication-related services, pharmacists can serve as a first line of defense by engaging in prevention and treatment efforts of opioid use disorder and overdose.

A pharmacy presence on national, state, and local levels is helping to address the opioid epidemic. This article will comment on and examine how pharmacists are working together with the health care team and community to address the opioid crisis.

Substance use disorders (SUDs) are a major public health concern in the United States. In 2015, nearly 21 million Americans 12 years of age or older had a SUD, with 2.5 million Americans having a SUD involving either prescription opioid medications or heroin [1]. Drug overdoses represented the leading cause of accidental death in the United States in 2015, with approximately 33,000 deaths attributed to either prescription opioid medications or heroin [1]. The age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2015 (16.3 per 100,000) was more than 2.5 times the rate in 1999 (6.1) [2]. 91 Americans die each day from an overdose of prescription opioid medications or heroin [3].

The opioid epidemic has not spared North Carolina; in fact, statistics show a worsening situation in the state. The North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics, Injury and Violence Prevention Branch, reported that emergency department (ED) visits related to overdoses of opioids, heroin, and methadone rose to nearly 4,000 in 2015 [4]. A similar increase occurred in unintentional poisoning deaths. From 1999 to 2015, opioid overdose deaths rose from 279 to 1,370 in North Carolina, a 391% increase. Of these poisoning deaths, 93% were caused by drugs and medications; 47% of deaths resulted from a prescription pain medication, heroin, or cocaine. The rate stands at 6.4 people per 100,000 North Carolinians who died from an unintentional opioid overdose. Despite these staggering statistics, opioid medications continue to be heavily prescribed and heroin usage is increasing. If the current trend persists, it is projected that unintentional poisonings will be the leading cause of death in North Carolina.

A pharmacy presence on national, state, and local levels is helping to address the opioid epidemic. This article will comment on and examine how pharmacists are working together with the health care team and community to address the opioid crisis.

Victoria Reynolds, Holly Causey, Jerry McKee, Vera Reinstein and Andrew MuzykNorth Carolina Medical Journal May 2017, 78 (3) 202-205; DOI: https://doi.org/10.18043/ncm.78.3.202

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