Pharmacists could play an important role in helping curb the U.S. opioid epidemic, a new study suggests.
Researchers studied the impact of a Rhode Island law allowing specially trained pharmacists to prescribe buprenorphine, a medication used to treat opioid use disorder.
The study began with 100 patients who received the medication at a pharmacy. After they were stabilized, 58 were randomly selected to receive further care either through the pharmacy or in a clinic or physician's office.
After one month, the pharmacy group had dramatically higher rates of continued care. About 89% were still receiving care, compared to 17% who had switched to a physician or clinic.
“We have a serious treatment gap. We are missing 90% of the people with opioid use disorder who need and want treatment,” said co-author Jeffrey Bratberg, a clinical professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy in Kingston. “Pharmacists are an underutilized partner in the health care workforce, especially the behavioral health care workforce. There is a pharmacy within five miles of where 95% of Americans live.”
More than 100,000 people died from overdose deaths in 2022.
“Treatment with medications can only work if it is available and accessible in the community,” said study co-author Dr. Josiah Rich, a a professor of medicine at Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, R.I. “This disease kills by stigma and isolation. Our study showed that a diverse patient population could benefit from treatments offered in a community pharmacy.”
President Joe Biden has signed a law eliminating a waiver that was previously required to prescribe buprenorphine, which may increase the number of pharmacies offering addiction treatment this year. Ten states now allow pharmacists to obtain federal authorization to prescribe controlled substances.
“Dramatically increasing capacity to provide good, lifesaving treatment for people with opioid use disorder through pharmacies is an approach that could be ramped up today,” said principal researcher Traci Green, co-director of Rhode Island Hospital's Center of Biomedical Research Excellence on Opioids and Overdose in Providence. “It's a game changer.”
The findings were published Jan. 12 in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the opioid epidemic.
SOURCE: Brown University, news release, Jan. 11, 2023