Diversion of opioid drugs

December 20, 2023

Diversion of Opioid Drugs: A Growing Crisis in At-Home Care Settings

Between May 2022 and May 2023, the United States reported more than 106,000 deaths attributed to drug overdose, many of which were caused by opioid use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This significant number of fatalities underscores the severity of the escalating opioid epidemic and points to a need for proactive measures to address the crisis. Despite representing only 4.4% of the global population, the United States consumes a staggering 80% of the world's opioids.

A key component of this issue is the growing trend of at-home medical care. At-home care involves providing healthcare services in a patient’s home. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, various home care services were prioritized to solve staffing issues and ensure ongoing care for many patients. Research indicates that the U.S. home healthcare market is projected to reach a valuation of USD 253.6 billion by 2030, expanding at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.49%. This growth is partly attributed to an increasing elderly population opting to remain at home to avoid the expenses associated with healthcare or long-term care facilities.

However, this emphasis on at-home care is raising concerns about the potential for increased opioid use in home environments. Improper disposal of these opioids heightens the risk of drug diversion and also poses environmental hazards, exacerbating the challenges posed by the opioid epidemic

Healthcare Professionals and Consumers Express Concerns Regarding Drug Diversion

Stericycle’s 2023 Healthcare Workplace Safety Trend Report (HWSTR) surveyed U.S. healthcare professionals, including providers (HCPs) and administrators, as well as a new audience this year: U.S. consumers. The survey and analysis revealed healthcare professionals' perspectives on managing medical waste, particularly concerning critical aspects like reducing risks in home health settings, combating the opioid epidemic, and adopting services to minimize healthcare delivery's environmental impact.

The findings indicate that providers and administrators agree on the challenges posed by the rise in at-home care that make the proper disposal of pharmaceutical waste more difficult. Notably, only 39% of healthcare professionals surveyed expressed confidence in most patients effectively managing their pharmaceutical waste in at-home care settings.

Regarding consumer opinions, the HWSTR results emphasize the need for implementing proactive measures to educate patients on the dangers and impacts of drug diversion, along with ways to address it from home. The report found that 59% of consumers surveyed keep leftover or unused prescription drugs at home for potential future use, while 65% are unaware of the proper disposal methods for such medications.

Furthermore, the report revealed a lack of familiarity among many consumers with the dangers of drug diversion and its connection to the opioid epidemic. In contrast to 92% of healthcare professionals, only 77% of consumers acknowledged that drug diversion poses a risk to the community. Additionally, a staggering 93% of providers and 91% of administrators agreed that consumers lack awareness of the correct methods for disposing of leftover or unused drugs.

What Can At-Home Care Patients Do to Responsibly Dispose of Unused or Expired Medications?

There are different ways for patients to safely dispose of unwanted prescription and over-the-counter medications. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sponsors National Prescription Drug Take Back Day in communities nationwide. In 2023, this event occurred in April and October, providing a secure, convenient, and responsible means of discarding prescription drugs while also educating the public about the risks of medication abuse.

As this event occurs biannually, the DEA provides guidelines for individuals to prepare for the next Drug Take Back Day:

  • Locate all medications in your household and ensure they are securely stored. All lids should be tightly secured on bottles, away from the reach of children and pets, etc.
  • Conduct an inventory of the medications and identify which are unwanted and have expired dates.
  • Clearly label medications that need disposal.
  • Take the medications to a Drug Take Back Day collection site on the day and during the hours announced by the DEA for 2024.

Beyond collection on National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, your local retail pharmacy or hospital may have a year-round drop off location. Individuals can visit the DEA Diversion Control Division website to find the nearest drug collection location.

How Stericycle Helps Support Drug Take Back Programs

Stericycle works closely with hospital, retail pharmacies, and other organizations to help enable the anonymous collection of unused drugs all year. Here are some ways we help take part in the disposal of unused consumer medications:

  • MedDrop™ Medication Collection Kiosks: DEA-registered hospital and retail pharmacies can encourage responsible drug collection with our MedDrop™ medication collection kiosks. Since its launch in 2016, the MedDrop™ solution has helped our customers collect over 5 million pounds of consumer medications that could otherwise have been diverted, abused, or contaminated community water supplies. Stericycle incinerates this collected material before sending it for end disposal.
  • Seal&Send™ Consumer Medication Mail Envelopes: For those who cannot access a drug take-back location, Stericycle offers Seal&Send™ Consumer Medication Mail Envelopes. These prepaid envelopes allow patients to send up to eight ounces of unused medication to Stericycle via USPS for incineration. Unlike drug collection kiosks, which can only be hosted by certain DEA registrants, any organization can purchase Seal&Send™ envelopes and provide them to patients, employees, students, and others.

We are committed to helping keep our communities safe. Visit our Safe Community Solutions page for more information about Stericycle’s work in helping to combat the opioid epidemic by offering at-home pharmaceutical waste disposal solutions as well as our other medical waste services.

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