Pharmacists Bridging the Education Gap for Patients and Their Families

Allied Against Opioid Abuse (AAOA) interviewed Anne Burns, Vice President of Professional Affairs at the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), the largest association of pharmacists in the United States, to learn more about how APhA and pharmacists across the country are working with patients to mitigate the prescription opioid epidemic.

 How is your organization engaged in helping to address the opioid epidemic?

Anne Burns: APhA provides extensive educational programming and information on opioid use disorder, medication assisted treatment and pain management to help pharmacists in caring for patients in all practice settings. We also work with policymakers and regulatory decision-makers to educate them about why pharmacists are vital health professionals to leverage during the opioid epidemic and how barriers to effective and efficient care can be addressed.  This includes highlighting pharmacists’ innovative practices in communities across the country.

Additionally, we use a variety of communications channels to ensure pharmacists and their staff are aware of important updates and the latest evidence related to the epidemic, including monthly news periodicals, social media and our peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association.

Why did APhA decide to join the Allied Against Opioid Abuse coalition and campaign?

Anne Burns: We joined AAOA because of the organization’s strong collection of consumer-facing educational materials. As APhA’s primary focus is on pharmacists, our materials are primarily provider-focused, so it was very important for us to be involved in a consumer-focused campaign.

What role do pharmacists and pharmacy staff play in educating patients and caregivers about their rights, risks and responsibilities associated with prescription opioids?

Anne Burns: Educating patients and caregivers is at the core of pharmacists’ training and practice. Pharmacists work in many different settings, including independent, chain and supermarket pharmacies; physician offices; long-term care centers; and hospitals. Regardless of the setting, pharmacists are committed to engaging with patients on the front lines to help bridge education gaps. Pharmacists have extensive training in the appropriate use of medications and are committed to helping patients understand and manage the risks of opioids, especially when combined with certain medications or alcohol, or if they are not taken as prescribed. Pharmacists also educate patients to be good stewards of their prescription opioid medications, storing and disposing of them appropriately so they aren’t accessible to others. Opioid prescriptions have extra dispensing requirements so pharmacists can help patients understand how to manage refills. Monitoring prescription opioids for how well they are working and whether the patient is at risk are also essential components of how pharmacists work with patients.

Why is it important that pharmacists share information about prescription opioids with patients and caregivers, and what makes them uniquely suited to provide these resources?

Anne Burns: Pharmacists undertake years of extensive training on medications and health conditions to become qualified to dispense and manage medications and serve as an expert healthcare resource for patients and their families. Becoming a pharmacist requires a minimum of six years of study, and most pharmacists spend up to eight years of training that leads to a Doctor of Pharmacy followed by licensure.

These years of training and study make pharmacists well-positioned to educate patients on how to use their medications effectively to maximize their health and wellness. As an accessible frontline source of guidance for many patients, pharmacists can also reinforce information the patient has received from other providers to assist in safe use of opioids.

How do pharmacists play a role in providing naloxone for customers?

Anne Burns: Pharmacists in all 50 states now have the ability to furnish naloxone to patients without a prescription from a physician. This allows them to identify and provide naloxone to patients who may be at higher risk for an opioid overdose.

Pharmacists talk to patients or family members about their willingness to keep naloxone on hand. Words matter. These can be difficult conversations to have, which can sometimes turn contentious. APhA is working with pharmacists across the country to provide guidance about how to shape the conversation to help the patient understand the seriousness of the risk and obtain buy-in for receiving naloxone.

How do pharmacists work with prescribers when it comes to prescription opioids?

Anne Burns: Pharmacists work directly with prescribers in a variety of ways. Many pharmacists work in physician office practices across the country. Working with the rest of a patient’s healthcare team, pharmacists can play an active role in managing opioid medications, tapering opioids and assisting with finding alternative pain management medications and treatments, and managing medications used for medication assisted treatment.

Pharmacists in community pharmacies work with prescribers to monitor how the patient’s opioid medication is working, any risks and side effects, patterns of misuse and to ensure that opioid prescriptions are legitimate. When it comes to prescription opioids, pharmacists and prescribers both have legal responsibilities to ensure that the medication is prescribed and dispensed for a “legitimate medical purpose.” This can be a difficult role to play, and pharmacists must be aware of potential indicators that a patient may have a substance use disorder issue that needs to be addressed.

Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.


The American Pharmacists Association, founded in 1852 as the American Pharmaceutical Association, is a 501 (c)(6) organization, representing 60,000 practicing pharmacists, pharmaceutical scientists, student pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and others interested in advancing the profession. APhA is dedicated to helping all pharmacists improve medication use and advance patient care and is the first and largest association of pharmacists in the United States. For more information, please visit