Keeping Medications Out of the Wrong Hands

When it comes to poison prevention, the pharmacist's role extends far beyond dispensing the right medication to the right patient.

By Kate H. Gamble, Senior Editor

Pharmacists invest a great deal of time thinking about the medications that patients take—but what about the drugs they don’t take?

According to the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA), as many as 40% of medications dispensed outside of hospitals are not taken, generating nearly 200 million pounds of unused pharmaceuticals each year. And too many of those medications are falling into the wrong hands and contributing to accidental poisonings and deaths, both of which have been rising steadily in the United States for the past 20 years.

A number of organizations, including NCPA and the Drug Enforcement Association (DEA), are encouraging patients to properly dispose of expired, unused, or unwanted medications in recognition of Poison Prevention Week (March 20-26). They are also urging pharmacists to help educate patients on the dangers of having potentially hazardous drugs in their home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 82 people in the United States die every day as a result of unintentional poisoning, and another 1941 are treated in emergency departments. The vast majority of the times, poisoning incidents are caused by drugs, with opioids being the most common medications involved.

But what’s perhaps most concerning is the source of these medications. Studies have shown that a majority of abused prescription drugs are obtained from family and friends. Too often, medications are kept in the home long after the intended patient has ceased taking them, largely because people don’t know how—or where—to properly dispose of them.

One solution is National Prescription Drug Take-back Day, an event being held by the DEA at sites across the country on Saturday, April 30, 2011 (to locate a collection site, click here). Through this free service, patients can safely and anonymously discard unused medications, according to the agency, which looks to add to the success of the first take-back day held in September 2010, in which 242,000 pounds of prescription drugs were collected at nearly 4100 sites.

However, although these one-time events have been successful in collecting potentially hazardous medications, more solutions are needed to tackle what seems to be a growing problem.

Another option for patients looking to clean out their medicine cabinets is to take medications back to the pharmacy. A number of chain stores, including Walgreens and Rite Aid, have worked in conjunction with Sharps Compliance Corporation to launch programs that enable consumers to safely dispose of prescription or over-the-counter medications using specially-designed envelopes.

For the time being, controlled substances are excluded from these programs due to federal regulations. The DEA, however, is working with stakeholders to draft rulemaking to implement the Secure and Responsible Drug Act of 2010, a law passed in October, 2010 to provide a mechanism for patients to dispose of controlled substances by delivering them to authorized entities, according to the American Pharmacists Association.

In the meantime, pharmacists can utilize tools like personalized medication lists to help patients keep track of the different types of medications they are taking, and develop a more clear understanding of the dangers of drug interactions or misuse. Creating a centralized list of medications, such as My Medicine List, a tool provided by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, can help stimulate discussions between patients and health care professionals—and promote safe use of medications.

For more information on poison prevention, click on the links below.

Resources for Pharmacists:

Waste Not, Want Not: Drug Disposal and the Role of the Pharmacist (CE)

State Prescription Drug Return, Reuse and Recycling Laws

Patient Education:

“Must Haves” for the Medicine Cabinet

How to Dispose of Unused Medicines

National Take Back Initiative Pharmacy Locater