Reflections on President Obama’s Substance Abuse Forum: A Perspective From Two Student Pharmacists

Contributed by: Jeremy Arthur (Class of 2017) and Randal Steele (Class of 2016)

To view a video interview published by WOWKTV, please click here.

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Randal Steele (Class of 2016), Jeremy Arthur (Class of 2017), and Dean Easton at the Substance Abuse Forum

The Community Forum with President Barack Obama held on Wednesday, October 21, 2015 at Charleston’s East End Resource Center was an incredible, once in a lifetime experience for us. We believe the discussion will provide impetus for further action towards addressing the prescription opiate and heroin abuse epidemic occurring not only in West Virginia but throughout the United States. Sadly, as reported by the Charleston Gazette-Mail (10/17/15), West Virginia leads the nation in overdose deaths. In the U.S., overdose deaths involving prescription pain relievers rose more than 300 percent from 1999 through 2011, leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to declare these deaths an epidemic. Deaths associated with heroin overdose have also increased significantly over the last three years.

While the discussion took place in WV, the forum presented a bipartisan recognition that this epidemic does not discriminate—both rural and urban communities deal with prescription drug and heroin abuse—no one is exempt. Specifically, President Obama indicated that substance abuse is not isolated to one community—it can impact anyone regardless of their socioeconomic background. The focus of the discussion was the President’s plan for prevention and recovery.

The President’s 2016 budget proposed critical investments to intensify efforts to reduce opioid misuse and abuse, including $133 million in new funding to support prevention and education activities. It also focuses on helping individuals sustain their recovery from opioid use disorders. For example, Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) is an important tool for the treatment of opioid use disorders, but is too often out of reach for vulnerable populations.  The President’s plan is to make these programs more accessible to those in recovery and those seeking recovery and treatment.

One facet of drug abuse discussed during Wednesday’s forum was the impact of the epidemic on America’s youth. The increase of prescription medication abuse in children and adolescents is likely due to the misconception that prescription medications are safer than illegal substances and therefore, less likely to cause abusive behaviors. Many individuals view prescription medications as “safer” simply because they are prescribed by healthcare professionals. Providing education to today’s youth is imperative in curbing the progression of the prescription medication abuse epidemic. Educating children from a very young age about the danger of prescription medication and illegal drug use is a key prevention strategy according to the President. He explained that children are “sponges” for knowledge.

Pharmacists can and should help with prevention and treatment strategies in a number of ways including education at the pharmacy counter. In fact, prevention through education is an area where student pharmacists and pharmacists can have a large impact. By promoting safe and effective medication use to children, we can dispel any myths that encourage experimentation that may lead to abuse in children and adolescents. Education specifically aimed at parents and adults should center on secure medication storage and proper disposal. Keeping medications out of the hands of children or adults who intend to misuse them is key in preventing diversion. Pharmacists and student pharmacists can aid in proper medication disposal by partnering with local law enforcement and other agencies that specialize in medication removal to ensure that unused/unwanted medications do not contribute to someone’s addiction.

While the pharmacist’s role in preventing this epidemic and assisting with patient recovery wasn’t acknowledged specifically at the community event, we know pharmacists are integral to discussion, education, prevention, treatment, and recovery. As we gain recognition as valued members of the healthcare team, our role will become more apparent, whether we are educating patients, coordinating care with physicians, or facilitating the sale of naloxone to help with opiate overdoses. With the awareness raised by the event, along with pharmacist’s expanding role, we hope to see rates of recovery finally outgrowing rates of substance abuse deaths and in turn, see healthier communities—both rural and urban.

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