Lisa Edgerton, PharmD, BCPS, CPP, Olivia Herndon, MA, and Joseph Pino, MD, MHA
Wilmington is a community in southeastern North Carolina known for its beautiful beaches, historic river-walk district, and the largest domestic television and movie production facility outside of California. In April of 2016, this city also became recognized for something else.
In 2016, Castlight Health released a report titled “The Opioid Crisis in America’s Workforce.” The study noted those who abused opioids are more likely to live in the rural south with 22 of the top 25 cities in Southern states. Furthermore, it named Wilmington, NC as the city with the highest abuse rate in the United States. In response, our medical community mobilized and recruited partners from disciplines outside of healthcare to reduce harm from opioids in our region.
Through a “call to action” where more than 100 regional stakeholders and leaders, the Community Partners Coalition (CPC) was born. This CPC aims to improve collaboration and coordination between those who provide care to individuals seeking access to mental health and substance use services by aligning efforts in the region. A primary focus of the CPC was to improve safe medication disposal options in our region by expanding medication take-back events and permanent drop boxes.
The first medication take-back event was held at New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) in March 2009. This event was held at one location on our hospital’s main campus in New Hanover county. NHRMC partnered with the Wilmington Sheriffs office and collected 140 pounds of medication at that event. This solo event continued biannually however, dates were chosen based upon availability of volunteer coordinators and coinciding community events. NHRMC continued to host this single site medication take-back event biannually through the Spring of 2017.
Through the support of the CPC, in the Fall of 2017, this event was expanded to 9 locations within 4 counties and collected 3,680 pounds of medication and 29,675 needles or sharps. This biannual medication take-back event has continued to grow now hosting 19 locations spanning 6 counties in our region.
In October 2019, we collected almost 6,000 pounds of medication, 43,000 needles or sharps and 178 medications, valued at $55,000, that were donated to a local clinic serving those without resources for re-dispensing. Expanding our medication take-back event to 19 locations did present some challenges along the way.
To expand our reach, leaders of the takeback event needed to engage in detailed planning and consider logistical challenges. We aligned our event dates to the Drug Enforcement Administrations (DEA) National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. Aligning with the DEA allowed us to plan for future events as these dates are standardized on the last Saturdays in April and October. Alignment also enabled law enforcement to register event locations in their national website. This site is searchable and provides a map of locations nearest to search area. Alignment with the DEA also connected us to our regional State Bureau of Investigation (SBI). This partnership enabled us to receive support including standard boxes used to collect medications at each take-back location. The SBI supplied NHRMC with 250 evidence boxes that were distributed to site leaders at each take-back location.
When planning to staff each of our sites, federal rules indicate that law enforcement must be present at each medication take-back location. When planning for our Fall 2017 expansion, we discovered that our hospital law enforcement officers could staff all NHRMC and affiliate locations. At the Fall 2017 event, we were able to utilize NHRMC police for 5 of the 9 locations. This allowed us to extend our partnership with local sheriff’s offices and expand to additional sites. We continue to collaborate with our regional county sheriff departments who provide an additional 1-2 law enforcement officers for each location.
NHRMC company police have been instrumental in not only staffing these events but also coordinating with regional law enforcement agencies. They collect and store the medication until the “burn day”. This often occurs 2-3 days after the takeback event. Our event has become so large that NHRMC law enforcement transports over 100 boxes of medication. As a result of our success, we have outgrown the transport capacity of our standard vehicles. We now either have to rent commercial trucks or borrow large box trucks from another department in our hospital.
In addition to organizing law enforcement to be present at each site, we decided we would accept needles or sharps at each of the 19 drop off locations. This became an issue for sites that were not affiliated with a health system because they did not have sharps containers at their locations. Prior to each event, NHRMC now donates sharps containers to each of these sites. Following the event, we now also coordinate with either law enforcement or a volunteer at the site to collect the sharps bins.
To raise awareness of this multi-county, multi-site drug takeback event, we approached our hospital’s marketing department to help us by advertising this event. They created a universal flyer listing each drop off location by county. This flyer is printed in a variety of sizes and is posted across our health system and to each of our drop-off location partners. We also advertise in advance of this event on social media, radio stations and local newspapers as well as media outlets on the day of the event. We also created a NHRMC webpage dedicated to medication disposal where we post our upcoming flyer and list locations of all area permanent drop boxes. Through this effort, we also learned that funeral homes, hospice care centers, veterinarian offices and churches are effective locations to advertise these events and added these sites to our marketing locations for future events. We also realized that we needed to create a Spanish-version of our flyer to appeal to other segments of our community and plan to do so for our next event.
We also discovered that we needed to develop a standard process to enable us to repurpose unused medication. Medication take-back locations staffed with NHRMC volunteers may collect any unused medications and can donate them to a charitable clinic. These medications must meet North Carolina repository rules and regulations to qualify for donation. Following the event, each unused medication collected is visually inspected by a pharmacist to ensure it meets all applicable federal guidelines for donated medications. By following this process, we could donate $ 55,000 of medication to one of our local, charitable clinics.
During our medication take-back expansion in 2017, NHRMC also installed three permanent medication drop boxes across several sites within our health system. Medication drop boxes were installed on the main campus within our Outpatient Pharmacy, at our free-standing emergency department located off campus, and at our critical access hospital located in a neighboring county. It was anticipated that the drop boxes would need to be emptied once a month. When first installed, the permanent drop box in our main hospital, which holds roughly 55 pounds of medication, needed to be emptied every 9-10 days. This was not anticipated. We now collect 1,600 pounds of medication in our 3 permanent medication boxes annually.
Like other communities across the country, Wilmington and our surrounding area have been significantly impacted by the opioid crisis. Through the development of the CPC and the leadership of NHRMC, we expanded our drug takeback events to multiple sites in multiple counties in our region. As a consequence of our success, we also discovered we needed to coordinate law enforcement at each location, establish safe storage, rent large trucks to transport thousands of pounds of medication collected at each event, develop a process to reclaim medication and manage high volume disposal of medication in permanently installed drop boxes across our health system. We are fortunate to have such an engaged community to collectively work to reduce harm from medication. Hopefully, these lessons learned will help you do the same.