Pharmacies could help make opioid treatment meds more accessible, study finds

A NEW STUDY shows that pharmacies could offer patients a safe starting point for recovery from opioid use disorder. / COURTESY GENOA HEALTHCARE

PROVIDENCE – A new study from researchers at Brown University, Rhode Island Hospital and the University of Rhode Island has shown that having pharmacies offer access to treatments for opioid disorders leads to a much higher retention rate among patients with the disorder.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, followed patients who started taking the opioid agonist/antagonist buprenorphine and found that they were much more likely to continue their treatment if they could receive care in pharmacies, compared with a clinic or physician’s office. After a month, 89% of patients continued to receive treatment in the pharmacy compared with 17% in the usual care group.

“With over 100,000 overdose deaths in 2022 and an opioid crisis impacting states across the country, improving access to buprenorphine is a critical and necessary next step,” said Traci Green, lead study author, co-director of Rhode Island Hospital’s Center of Biomedical Research Excellence on Opioids and Overdose and adjunct professor at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School. “Dramatically increasing capacity to provide good, lifesaving treatment for people with opioid use disorder through pharmacies is an approach that could be ramped up today.”

Researchers partnered with Genoa Healthcare, a national provider of pharmacy care dedicated to serving the needs of those in the behavioral health and addiction treatment communities, which trained a team of 21 pharmacists in how to provide buprenorphine care at six of its pharmacies in Rhode Island.

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Green said seeing so many patients continue their care in pharmacy settings was “completely unexpected,” but the results show how pharmacies can be an “effective and viable” pathway to treatment for patients.

“We have a serious treatment gap. We are missing 90% of the people with opioid use disorder who need and want treatment,” said Jeffrey Bratberg, a clinical professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy and an investigator on the study. “Pharmacists are an underutilized partner in the health care workforce, especially the behavioral health care workforce. There is a pharmacy within 5 miles of where 95% of Americans live.”

Currently, patients who are prescribed buprenorphine must see an approved physician or go to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency-approved opioid treatment facility for their care. They can then pick up the medication at the clinic or at a pharmacy. But the study allowed pharmacies to become “one-stop” locations, where patients could fill their prescriptions, obtain medication management and receive follow-up care.

“Considering overdose deaths are increasing the fastest among Black and Hispanic communities and over 1,500 Rhode Islanders are currently unhoused, pharmacy-based addiction care models could be a pathway to promote racial and economic equity in accessing addiction treatment,” said study author Josiah D. Rich, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University and attending physician at The Miriam and Rhode Island hospitals. “Treatment with medications can only work if it is available and accessible in the community.”

“Opioid use disorder is too often a lethal disease, and it kills by stigma and isolation. Widespread, equitable access to effective treatment is the answer,” he said. “Our study showed that the pharmacy treatment model increases access, which benefits a diverse patient population and increases equity.”

Claudia Chiappa is a PBN staff writer. You may contact her at 

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