The opioid abuse and misuse epidemic: implications for pharmacists in hospitals and health systems

Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2014 Sep 15;71(18):1539-54. doi: 10.2146/ajhp140157.


Purpose: The current epidemic of prescription opioid abuse and misuse in the United States is discussed, with an emphasis on the pharmacist's role in ensuring safe and effective opioid use.

Summary: U.S. sales of prescription opioids increased fourfold from 1999 to 2010, with an alarming rise in deaths and emergency department visits associated with the use of fentanyl, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and other opioid medications. Signs and symptoms of opioid toxicity may include altered mental status, hypoventilation, decreased bowel motility, central nervous system and respiratory depression, peripheral vasodilation, pulmonary edema, hypotension, bradycardia, and seizures. In patients receiving long-term opioid therapy for chronic pain, urine drug testing is an important tool for monitoring and assessment of therapy; knowledge of opioid metabolic pathways and assay limitations is essential for appropriate use and interpretation of screening and confirmatory tests. In recent years, there has been an increase in federal enforcement actions against pharmacies and prescription drug wholesalers involved in improper opioid distribution, as well as increased reliance on state-level prescription drug monitoring programs to track patterns of opioid use and improper sales. Pharmacies are urged to implement or promote appropriate guidelines on opioid therapy, including the use of pain management agreement plans; policies to ensure adequate oversight of opioid prescribing, dispensing, and waste disposal; and educational initiatives targeting patients as well as hospital and pharmacy staff.

Conclusion: Pharmacists in hospitals and health systems can play a key role in recognizing the various forms of opioid toxicity and in preventing inappropriate prescribing and diversion of opioids.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Analgesics, Opioid / urine
  • Community Health Services*
  • Drug Monitoring
  • Drug Overdose / epidemiology*
  • Humans
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Pain Management
  • Pharmacy Service, Hospital*
  • Prescription Drug Misuse / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Prescription Drug Misuse / statistics & numerical data*
  • Professional Role
  • Substance Abuse Detection
  • United States / epidemiology


  • Analgesics, Opioid