Every day, nearly 130 Americans die from an opioid overdose and even more battle with persistent addiction. Although there are many factors contributing to the U.S. opioid crisis, a key driver is the misuse of prescription pain medicine, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and codeine. When these medications are used for non-medical purposes, the likelihood of addiction grows, often serving as a gateway to even more dangerous opioids, such as heroin.
How Proper Drug Disposal Combats the Opioid Crisis
By providing convenient, safe and secure options for the disposal of unused or expired prescription medications, organizations can help prevent these drugs from getting into the wrong hands. Six out of 10 patients prescribed opioid painkillers, for one reason or another, end up having leftover pills. These are often forgotten about in medicine cabinets or nightstands and can end up in the in the wrong hands. Consequently, having guidance on secure storage, as well as safe and convenient disposal methods, is critical to combatting the opioid epidemic.
In fact, a 2019 Stericycle study showed that almost one in five Americans (18%) don’t know how to safely dispose of unused or expired drugs. This lack of clarity leads some patients to:
- Throw leftover drugs in the trash, where they can be retrieved for use by someone else (29%).
- Flush drugs down the drain or toilet, potentially contaminating the environment (26%).
- Hold on to their medications, having between one and three bottles of unused prescriptions in their medicine cabinets, which can increase the risk that others who were not prescribed the medication will use the drugs (47%).
Going a step further, one in ten survey respondents indicated they have offered or given leftover prescription drugs to a friend or family member. This is especially concerning because more than 75% of people who become dependent on opioids report they first started with pills they received from someone they knew.
The Effectiveness of Drug Take Back Programs
Drug take back programs are comprehensive initiatives designed to encourage patients to dispose of unused or expired medications properly and in a timely manner. There are several kinds of drug take back initiatives, ranging from designated take back days to multifaceted programs, which include patient education and community outreach activities that extend throughout the year.
Although each type of program is slightly different, they all share the common goal of getting unused medications out of circulation and eliminating the chance they will be used for recreational purposes. For example, the most recent National Drug Take Back Day on October 24, 2020, sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), diverted nearly 500 tons of pharmaceuticals out of community areas.
Creating a Drug Take Back Program
If you are considering implementing a drug take back program for your organization, there are specific steps you should follow to create a compliant and effective drug take back program. The following is a brief outline of best practices to keep in mind:
Step 1: Determine the type of program you are eligible to provide
The DEA has specific regulations that cover the nature of programs and what facilities can house them. Before launching a drug take back program, check the regulations in Title 21 of the CFR, Section 1317 to see what’s allowed for your facility. While any healthcare organization can purchase mail-back envelopes to give to patients so they can dispose of consumer medications, only retail pharmacies, healthcare facilities with on-site pharmacies, and law enforcement agencies can have kiosks that collect unused or expired medications.
Step 2: Develop a plan
Once you determine the type of program you can offer, be sure to define goals for the program and how you will measure progress toward those goals. This may involve establishing impact baselines, defining success criteria, using trackable drug disposal solutions and analyzing the data to identify areas of success and opportunity. When selecting drug disposal solutions, check that they meet federal agency recommendations, including those of the DEA, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory bodies.
Step 3: Make drug disposal convenient and anonymous
The most successful programs allow the public to dispose of medications without judgement. Whether dropping leftover drugs in a conveniently located kiosk or mailing them through a special envelope that was given when they received the prescription, the process should be clear, accessible and private.
Step 4: Don’t forget about seniors
Due to the large volume of drugs prescribed to the senior population, it is essential for drug take back programs to reach this audience and address potential barriers they may face with disposal. According to a 2018 poll of adults ages 50 to 80 who were prescribed opioids, 49% had pills left over and 86% kept them for later use. These scenarios leave seniors vulnerable to abuse and addiction, and they also make this population a target for drug diversion from relatives, guests or professionals who have access to the senior’s home.
Step 5: Educate consumers and staff on how to properly dispose of medication
Simply setting out a kiosk and hoping people will use it to dispose of unused or expired medication is not the most effective way to yield an impactful program. To be successful, it is important that organizations commit to educating their patients, staff and the community about why the initiative is important and how it works. Using social media, blogs, emails, posters, staff trainings and other diverse communication strategies can help get the message out.
Drug Take Back Program Resources
There are a number of resources to help you with program design, implementation, consumer education and performance measurement. Here are just a few to consider:
- Stericycle’s Drug Take Back Resources: Comprehensive information on and access to Stericycle’s medication collection kiosks and envelopes, which offer a safe, reliable, and anonymous method for consumers to dispose of their unused or expired drugs.
- The SAFE Project Community Playbook: A top-down guide that includes a step-by-step approach to ensuring a SAFE community.
- The Opioid Coalition Resource Hub: An open source, online database of opioid crisis response strategies and resources.
- Take Action 4 Life: A suite of bottom-up resources and tools that enable everyday people to take action on the opioid crisis.