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Engaging the opioid epidemic head on: Improving proper disposal of unused opioid medications after surgery

Rachael Haverland, MD, MS, Todd Luckritz, PharmD, RPh, Elisabeth Lim, MPH, Matthew R. Buras, MS, Johnny Yi, MD


Background: Currently, in the United States, there is an epidemic of opioid abuse. While this problem is well known to the public due to significant media and political attention, patients are poorly educated on the proper handling and disposal of unused opioids. Instead, the onus has fallen on the healthcare provider to minimize the number of opioids prescribed.

Study objective: To improve proper opioid disposal rates after gynecologic surgery by providing educational materials along with a disposal bag.

Study design: We performed a prospective study evaluating baseline understanding of medication disposal using a questionnaire given to the patients during their preoperative visit. Subsequently, patients were provided written information on proper disposal of their medications and an activated charcoal medication disposal bag. Study patients completed a survey about disposal of their unused opioids at their last post-operative visit. The success of education and proper disposal of opioid medications were evaluated.

Results: Thirty-five patients, average age of 45 (range 20-77), were enrolled, and 31 patients successfully completed both surveys. The surgeries performed included hysterectomy 23 percent (n = 7), laparoscopic excision of endometriosis 32 percent (n = 10), laparoscopic ovarian cystectomy 23 percent (n = 7), prolapse repair 3 percent (n = 1), and midurethral sling procedures 19 percent (n = 6). Chronic pelvic pain was identified in 39 percent (n = 12) of our patient population. Prior to education, 52 percent (n = 16) of patients did not dispose of their opioids. Furthermore, 71 percent (n = 22) of patients stated they had never been educated by a medical provider regarding appropriate disposal. Nineteen percent (n = 6) confirmed they have used an opioid medication prescribed to someone else. Demographic data show 65 percent (n = 20) of these patients had completed a college degree or greater. After education and being given a reliable option for medication disposal with the Deterra® bag, 94 percent (n = 29) of patients properly disposed of their opioids after surgery, demonstrating a 45 percent (p < 0.001) increase in proper disposal. In our study alone, 491 tablets of 5mg oxycodone were properly disposed. The majority of patients, 77 percent (n = 24) used the drug disposal bag, and when queried, stated they would be willing to pay on average $7.70 (range 0-20) per bag. Without education and a simple option for disposal, 422 tablets prescribed may have been subject to inappropriate diversion.

Conclusion: This study clearly shows that patient education, coupled with a reliable option for opioid disposal, is effective. We strongly encourage other surgical institutions to implement similar practices not only for our surgical patients’ safety, but also for the tens of thousands of patients who died of opioid abuse in the last year.



drug disposal, education, epidemic, opioid, pain medication, patient safety

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