When People magazine features this headline—“Deadly Pills: One Death Every 24 Minutes”—you know you will have the attention of the American public. And when the stories that follow report the fact that drugs are the #1 accidental killer in the United States with “a vast majority of them caused by prescription meds,” you also know that the pharmacist will be asked probing questions by their customers. How can this be true? And more to the point, how can it stop?
The warning in the article is clear—most overdose deaths are caused by pills right from people’s medicine cabinets, with a 90% increase in deaths by poisoning them from 1999 to 2008, many of them prescription drugs. More than 12 million Americans 12 years and older have abused prescription drugs. And 61 pharmaceutical drug deaths occur each day in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The stories are sad and true. A young mother takes antidepressants, mixed with alcohol and hydrocodone pills, and never wakes up, only 2 weeks after her daughter is born. A teenager from Utah, which has one of the highest prescription drug death rates in the nation, steals oxycodone from a neighbor’s medicine cabinet and dies. A fireman dealing with pain from injuries sustained while on the job misuses pain medicines and antidepressants, and loses his life.
Our goal with Pharmacy Times is to educate pharmacists on the many aspects of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. This includes their side effects and safety, but also the risks of drug diversion and abuse, as well as how to counsel patients. The pharmacist is on the front line of public safety and, in fact, is the expert on medication safety and best practices. It is up to the public to make use of these valuable health care professionals to ask questions when there is any confusion, to seek counsel when there seems to be a problem, and to follow up for situations that require intervention by physicians. It’s important that individuals take responsibility for their actions, and when they need the help, to seek it out.
As the statistics and headlines send out the alarm, such as the recent one in People magazine, people are taking action. A pioneer example comes from Washington state, where a new law limits the availability of opioids, and advocacy groups have stepped up to face this public health crisis. But there is more work to be done.
“Death by Pills” is not a headline that the industry and health care profession would like to see. Medications are meant for positive effect, not accidental death or misuse. How can it stop? Look in your own backyard, and see if you can aid law enforcement, join a new community group, or counsel the individual patients who come to your pharmacy. By getting involved in your own neighborhood, and recognizing the great harm the misuse of prescription drugs can bring, you can make a difference.
Chairman/Chief Executive Officer