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THE OPIOID EPIDEMIC AND OUR RESPONSE

July 26, 2016

One of the few things that our politically divided nation can agree upon these days is that we have an opioid epidemic.

In a rare act of bipartisan legislation, Congress passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, and it was signed into law by President Obama on July 22. The Act will help increase the availability of naloxone (a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose), strengthen prescription drug monitoring programs, and expand educational programs.

In his non-fiction book Dreamland, Sam Quinones graphically depicts the destructive effects of the opioid epidemic, not only on individuals but also on the social fabric of towns across the country.

The stories from the book are reflected in the national data. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, each day 650,000 opioid prescriptions are dispensed, 3,900 people initiate nonmedical use of prescription opioids, and 78 people die from an opioid-related overdose.

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The regional picture is equally disturbing. In 2014, neighboring states Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts saw drug overdose deaths per 100,000 range from 19.0-35.5. Locally, New York was in the 6.3-11.7 range while Vermont was between 11.9-14.4. Even these comparatively lower numbers are unacceptable and should offer little consolation.

As a College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, we are uniquely situated to play an important part in battling this epidemic, and we embrace that role.

This crisis demands a multi-faceted approach, and our response as a College should also be multi-faceted. As an institution, we must assert ourselves as thought leaders on this issue, influencing the conversation on policy as it relates to prescription drug abuse.

We must also provide our graduates with the skills to help manage the epidemic across multiple platforms – from one-on-one consultations to the launch of new public health programs. And we need to ensure our graduates stay current with the latest developments through continuing education programming.

While there is still much work to be done, we are proud to have taken some notable steps down this path:

  • Pharmacy students in their third professional year received training this past April from the Albany County Department of Health on the use of naloxone for reversing overdoses. Faculty have been similarly trained, and we will now be offering naloxone instruction as part of the Pharmacy Skills Lab sequence for P3 students.
  • In June, ACPHS signed a pledge along with nearly 100 other schools of pharmacy to educate each student pharmacist about (1) life-saving overdose interventions, including naloxone, and (2) how to counsel patients, individuals, and families who may encounter those persons at risk from overdose from opioid use.
  • ACPHS was the site for a June 2 Community Forum on responses to the opioid epidemic hosted by Michael Botticelli, the White House’s Director of National Drug Control Policy. More than 150 people from the local community attended the event, asked questions, and heard personal stories of how this epidemic is affecting the lives of people in the Capital Region.
  • Less than a week after the Community Forum, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed opioid abuse bill S.243 into law. In addition to tightening prescribing procedures for opioids, the legislation includes language giving pharmacists provider status in the state. The passage of the bill was due in part to the efforts of students and faculty on the Vermont Campus who conducted research, attended legislative sessions, and collaborated with the Vermont Pharmacists Association to help advance the legislation.
  • As part of the upcoming August 11 Pharmacy Preceptor Training program, new faculty member Jacqueline Pratt-Cleary will lead a session on Opioid Induced Respiratory Depression and Naloxone Distribution. A more comprehensive Continuing Education program titled “American Medicine’s Curse: The Prescription Opioid Epidemic” will be held November 18 in conjunction with Albany Medical Center and Albany Law School.
  • The Albany County Department of Health is proposing a new initiative to combat the opioid epidemic called “Project Orange.” The county-wide strategy seeks to educate residents on appropriate opioid use and disposal of prescribed controlled medications. Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen has already reached out to the College to see how our students and student operated pharmacies may be able to assist with their efforts.

These various activities represent early responses by the ACPHS community to deal with this urgent problem. There is much more work to be done, but we are starting down the path to addressing one of the largest and most troubling public health threats of this generation.

Greg Dewey, Ph.D., is President of Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

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