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The Opioid Epidemic

Nurses can help.

We can all help prevent one of the most troubling problems in America today: the opioid epidemic. And it starts right in our very own medicine cabinets.

April 30th is National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. This is a chance to safely discard all those prescriptions collecting dust in our homes. In cooperation with authorized collecting sites, this Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-sponsored event provides an opportunity for anyone to anonymously discard unwanted and expired medications at no cost.

What's the big fuss?
Let's connect the dots: 75% of heroin users started with abuse of a prescription opioid. The misuse or abuse of opioid prescriptions is one pathway to overdose or diversion to heroin-a pattern that can and must be stopped. In fact, most teenagers today who abuse prescription drugs obtained them from a relative or friend.

Is opioid abuse really a problem in America? Yes!
Deaths resulting from overdose of opioid pain relievers have quadrupled since 1999, placing drug overdose as the leading cause of injury death in the U.S. In 2014 alone, nearly 19,000 people died from an opioid-related overdose. In part because of new administrative policies controlling opioid prescribing in many states, addicts are diverting to illicit drugs as a cheaper and easier option. Heroin use has increased 145% since 2007, and death from heroin overdose has more than quintupled from 2000 to 2014.

Is Narcan solving it? No!
Narcan is saving lives, but many nurses may view it as a bandage. It isn't preventing opioid abuse, and it's not stopping the epidemic.

Healthcare providers must work together to do a better job at screening, treating and monitoring our patients in pain, and many efforts have been initiated to that end. But a simple way nurses can contribute is by doing what we do best: patient teaching. Most patients who receive prescriptions for opioids report not receiving information on how to safely store or dispose of expired prescriptions, and many were never told about its addictive nature-despite its federal classification as a Schedule II drug and many state requirements for such counseling. Below are just a few of the important talking points:

1.  Only take opioids as prescribed.                        

2. Let your opioid-prescribing healthcare provider know all the medications and substances you are taking.

3.  Do not share your opioid prescriptions with anyone-or take someone else's.

4.  Safely store and safely discard your opioids (not in the toilet or trash).

National Prescription Drug Take Back Day is being held at your local collection site from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 30 ( The Coalition for Healthy Communities Prescription Drug Task Force in Middlesex, N.J., has been promoting prescription take-back for decades. They started this approach when strategizing to reduce the prescription drug abuse problem and noticed some take-back activities starting in different parts of the country.

"We went to every police department and police chief in the county," explained Linda Surks, certified prevention specialist at Wellspring Center for Prevention & Founder/Coordinator of the Coalition of Health Communities Prescription Drug Task Force in Middlesex. "It was well-received. We got 100% support and partnership from our law enforcement in Middlesex."

With a DEA member on its task force, the coalition started to get the DEA involved as its sought guidance on the legal requirements of the activity. Because of its success, it was rolled out throughout New Jersey, and now it is a countrywide DEA-sponsored event.

 "Literally, tons of drugs were taken out of people's homes," Surks said, reflecting on the success of the Take-Back events. "These are drugs that would have ended up on the streets."

On any day of the year, prescriptions can be safely disposed of in drop-boxes in law enforcement agencies or in some local pharmacies that function as public controlled substances disposal sites. However, National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day helps promote awareness of this important action. Let's take that extra step to educate our patients, this and every month, and prevent one more person from becoming addicted to opioids.

 Daria Waszak is a faculty member in an RN-BSN program and is pursuing a doctorate of nursing practice degree. She has more than 20 years of professional nursing experience.

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