Pharmacists expanded role in providing care for opioid use disorder during COVID-19: A qualitative study exploring pharmacists' experiences

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2022 Mar 1:232:109303. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2022.109303. Epub 2022 Jan 10.


Introduction: During the COVID-19 pandemic, patients with opioid use disorder (OUD) struggled with access to prescribers and opioid agonist therapy (OAT). Recognizing this gap in care, Health Canada issued a short-term subsection 56(1) class exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act authorizing pharmacists to independently manage controlled substances. The purpose of this study was to explore the expanded role of Canadian pharmacists in providing care to patients with OUD during the pandemic.

Methods: We conducted qualitative key informant telephone interviews in the fall of 2020 with Canadian pharmacists who used the exemption. We included community or primary healthcare team-based pharmacists who managed opioid medication under the exemption. We recorded, transcribed verbatim, and de-identified all transcripts. Data was analyzed using a thematic approach involving line-by-line coding and constant comparison.

Results: We interviewed nineteen pharmacists with representation from all provinces and urban and rural practice settings. Three major themes emerged that captured the pharmacists' perspectives when providing care for patients with OUD during the pandemic: (i) continuity of care; (ii) harm reduction; and (iii) access to care. Pharmacists used the exemption to extend prescriptions, transfer prescriptions, receive verbal orders, and deliver OAT.

Conclusions: Throughout the pandemic, pharmacists were able to provide continuity of care to patients with OUD who would have otherwise been unable to access care. The exemption permitted pharmacists to assess patients and provide OAT through this expanded role. Other countries should look to the Canadian experience and leverage the expertise of the pharmacist to expand their scope so that they can help fill the gap in care for patients with OUD.

Keywords: COVID-19; Opioid agonist therapy; Opioid crisis; Opioid use disorder; Pharmacists; Qualitative methods.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Canada
  • Humans
  • Opioid-Related Disorders* / drug therapy
  • Opioid-Related Disorders* / epidemiology
  • Pandemics
  • Pharmacists
  • SARS-CoV-2