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I’ve been seeing a lot of stories in the news about dangerous drugs like opioids... How can pharmacists help keep patients safe?

December 9, 2016

As frontline health care providers, pharmacists have key roles in fighting opioid abuse by ensuring that patients take these powerful drugs safely. Since pharmacists have open lines of communication with both doctors and patients, they’re in an ideal position to identify risky situations and to help in making the final decision on whether or not to dispense an opioid to a patient.

Here are the ways pharmacists help patients take opioids safely:

  1. Educating patients. Pharmacists are an important source of drug-related information – proper use, side-effects, safe and proper storage, and disposal – and that becomes even more important when the drug is an opioid. Patients being dispensed opioids need to understand the very real risks of addiction and how to avoid them.


  1. Identifying problems. Having access to a patient's medication record gives pharmacists an opportunity to identify prescription drug problems early on. Pharmacists can detect inappropriate patterns of drug use that could signal current or potential opioid abuse. For example, reviews of all the medications being used by a patient give pharmacists an opportunity to become familiar with a patient's diagnosis, why they have been prescribed specific drugs, and their response to treatment. This allows the pharmacist to provide further education on safe and appropriate use and/or contact the doctor if need be.

    In some provinces, pharmacists are alerted to possible “double-doctoring” (seeing and being prescribed medications by more than one doctor) and polypharmacy (use of multiple pharmacies) through programs like the Ontario Narcotic Monitoring System and the Nova Scotia Prescription Monitoring Program, which monitor usage patterns of opioid drugs and other narcotics and controlled substances. But even without a provincial monitoring program in place, pharmacists look for inappropriate patterns of medication use including:
    • Early refills of medication which could mean that the patient is taking more of the drug than prescribed. This could be mean the patient’s pain is legitimately not well controlled, but it could also indicate “drug-seeking behaviour” by patients who are becoming addicted and seeking a “high”…or even that the drug is being illegally provided to someone else.
    • Duplicate claims rejected by government programs and/or insurance companies, which can be a warning that the patient is going to different pharmacies.
    • Frequent prescriptions from different walk-in clinics or emergency department doctors can be an indication of “drug-seeking behaviour.”
    • Forged prescriptions.
  2. Helping to keep unused prescription opioids off the street. While you shouldn’t hold on to any leftover or unneeded drugs, proper disposal of opioids is essential. Accidental and/or recreational consumption of these drugs can have disastrous consequences from addiction to death. Pharmacists actively encourage patients to return their unused opioid medication to the pharmacy when it’s no longer needed. For example, pharmacists in Ontario must participate in a “Patch for Patch” program that requires patients who have a prescription for a fentanyl patch to return their used ones to the pharmacy before receiving new ones. Many pharmacists in other provinces participate in medication return programs such as the ENVIRx program in Alberta and the BC Medications Return Program. To find a pharmacy where you can return unused medication head over to this link and enter your postal code in the Return Locations
  3. Dispensing Naloxone is used to reverse the effect of an overdose and is now available without a prescription to opioid users and their family members. A pharmacist can help by dispensing naloxone and providing instructions in its administration.

Last, if you’re prescribed opioids, be sure to follow the pharmacist’s instructions. If something’s not clear, ask questions. We want you to be safe.