Pharmacists have the unique knowledge, skills and responsibilities for assuming an important role in substance abuse prevention education and assistance…  Pharmacists, as health care providers, should be actively involved in reducing the negative effects that substance abuse has on society, health systems and the pharmacy profession.

— American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (2003)

Competency framework

Unless they have taken special training, most pharmacists are unaware of the clinical and practice issues surrounding methadone and their impact on client safety because they have had little or no exposure to them during their undergraduate pharmacy education.

The role of the pharmacist in MMT is unusual and there is no similar model in other therapeutic areas. Daily interactions with clients, along with direct clinical assessments, supervised dose administration and close monitoring do not usually occur in other types of pharmacy care. Pharmacists require a set of key competencies to ensure client safety in methadone maintenance treatment.

The panel recommends that:

15. Pharmacy managers/owners, hospital pharmacy directors and the Ontario College of Pharmacists support and encourage pharmacists providing methadone services to have education in and/or demonstrate knowledge and skills in core competency areas. These areas include:

a. Substance use disorders, including opioid dependence. [IV]

b. The varied models of substance abuse treatment, including harm reduction and its implications for pharmacy. [IV]

c. The impact of attitudes and stigma on client care. [III]

d. Methadone maintenance treatment clinical guidelines and their rationale, particularly with respect to practices to protect client safety, including:

  • assessing initial and increased doses for appropriateness
  • assessing methadone-dosing histories (for missed doses and irregularities in pattern of pickup) before dispensing a dose of methadone to a client
  • ensuring the safe provision of “carries” (take-home doses) to clients
  • dealing with intoxicated clients, including understanding the risks of polysubstance abuse. [IV]

Pharmacists need to understand substance use disorders, particularly addiction, and to understand the difference between “use” and “use disorders.” Pharmacists need to be able to identify individuals with substance use disorders and to help motivate them to seek change and treatment. As one of the most accessible health care professionals, the pharmacist can play an important role and refer patients to appropriate services and substance use treatment programs. Many MMT clients have concurrent substance use disorders with substances such as alcohol, benzodiazepines or cocaine. Pharmacists should understand the risks associated with polysubstance use and the risk of toxicity.

Although pharmacists may already be involved in harm reduction, for example, by providing sterile needles and syringes to people who use injection drugs, further involvement could include offering advice to people with substance use problems about health issues and how to minimize health risks. A random survey of 2,017 Canadian pharmacists by Myers et al. (1998) found that while more than 88 per cent of pharmacists were comfortable with the harm reduction role in providing needles and syringes, this comfort did not extend to providing methadone services. This may be due to a misunderstanding of the benefits of methadone maintenance treatment and its role as a harm reduction approach. Educational initiatives need to address such misunderstandings and other negative attitudes or misperceptions that may be held by pharmacists.

Pharmacists must have a good understanding of the critical safety issues associated with methadone. Methadone has a unique pharmacological profile that makes it useful in the treatment of opioid dependence; however, it is different from other opioids and the implications of its long half-life can lead to risks of accumulation contributing to methadone overdose and deaths.

The initiation phase of methadone treatment can be a time of high risk for toxicity and pharmacists’ understanding of dosing recommendations is critical at this stage. Pharmacists need to exercise particular vigilance in monitoring client dosing for appropriateness. For example, where clients have missed several doses (defined as three or more), or fewer (one or two) during periods of methadone dose escalation, pharmacists must understand the concept of loss of tolerance and risks to clients if the usual regular methadone dose is administered (CPSO, 2005).

Pharmacists also have to understand the safety issues associated with “carries.” Having a written carry agreement with the client is one way to help the client understand these issues as well. Pharmacists should be aware of some of the signs that indicate a formerly stable client on a high level of carries is relapsing to instability (e.g., missing observed dosing days, lost carries) (CPSO, 2005).

Pharmacists in Ontario need to be familiar with the CPSO’s most recent Methadone Maintenance Guidelines (2005), the OCP’s Policy for Dispensing Methadone (2006), and CAMH’s Methadone Maintenance: A Pharmacist’s Guide to Treatment (Isaac et al., 2004).

Understanding the risks of polysubstance use and knowing how to deal with intoxicated clients are particularly important core competency areas for pharmacists, with significant safety implications. The pharmacist should have an understanding of the impact that polysubstance use (for example, use of benzodiazepines, alcohol and cocaine) can have on the client taking MMT. Through dialogue and checking for signs of excessive dosing or substance use such as sedation, slurring of speech, smelling of alcohol and unsteady gait, the pharmacist should be able to assess if a client is intoxicated before dosing.

Recommendations from the coroner have highlighted the need for assessing clients for intoxication because deaths have occurred through combination of methadone and other drugs, including alcohol (OCP, 2008).

In an Australian survey (Peterson et al., 2007), pharmacists identified the risk of overdose associated with methadone alone and in combination with other psychoactive drugs as the greatest problematic issue for pharmacists in deciding to provide a methadone service.

In a survey of 148 pharmacists in Australia (Koutroulis et al., 2000), when asked about how they would respond to clients who presented intoxicated for their methadone dose, 44 per cent said they would withhold the dose and inform the client of this. This is the desirable course of action. However, 32 per cent of pharmacists said they would provide the usual dose, 16 per cent would dispense a reduced dose without the client knowing and nine per cent said they would blind the dose with a placebo. Only two per cent of the pharmacists indicated that they would breathalyse an intoxicated client.

Pharmacists who withheld the methadone dose were more likely to inform the prescriber (74 per cent) than pharmacists who dispensed the usual or modified dose. In a focus group, the reasons for dispensing to an intoxicated client were categorized as follows:

  • insufficient communication between prescriber and pharmacist
  • downplaying the risk of toxicity
  • personal beliefs and values
  • fear of what the client would do if dose refused
  • difficulty in recognizing intoxication and lack of education and training.

Further, Koutroulis et al.’s survey suggested that pharmacists who had more than 10 methadone clients were more likely to provide the usual methadone dose than pharmacists with 10 or fewer clients.

Educational offerings

Many physicians and pharmacists don’t think they see addicts in their practice. The reality is they probably are treating them for other disorders, but the patient just hasn’t been identified as an addict. This also means that dependence treatment needs to become part of regular pharmacy practice as well.

— Open discussion, physicians and pharmacists (Raisch et al., 2005)

The panel recommends that:

16. All pharmacy students receive education on substance abuse, including opioid dependence, its treatment and practical intervention strategies, in their undergraduate curriculum. [IV]

Future pharmacists need to be adequately educated on substance use so that they are prepared upon graduation to care for patients with substance abuse disorders. In particular, opioid dependence and its treatment should be required components in the curriculum. Pharmacists who have had education in this area are likely to feel more comfortable providing pharmaceutical care to this group of clients.

Currently there are two faculties of pharmacy in Ontario, at the University of Toronto and at the University of Waterloo. The Waterloo faculty initiated their program in January 2009; therefore, their plans for curriculum on substance abuse education are still in the development phase.

At Toronto’s Faculty of Pharmacy, pharmacy students receive a rigorous scientific and clinical education over four years but receive little or no education on substance abuse and its treatment. Since the early 1990s, an elective fourth-year problem-based course has been offered (Busto et al., 1994). This course has one 2-hour segment on opioid abuse and treatment. It includes a didactic component, as well as an MMT client interview and discussion of stigma and attitudes. The course is elective and only a small proportion of the fourth-year class has taken this course offering.

Over the last five years enrolment in this elective has increased from 9.7 per cent of the class (13/134 students) in 2003–2004 to 34.2 per cent of the class (79/231 students) in 2008–2009 (personal communication, Dr. B. Sproule, April 29, 2009). Clearly, most future pharmacists have no exposure to substance use, opioid dependence and treatment with methadone.

The lack of specific undergraduate educational activities about substance abuse results in a missed opportunity to positively influence the knowledge, skills and attitudes of future pharmacists in this area.

As the most accessible of all health care professionals, pharmacists have an important role to play to help prevent and treat substance abuse disorders in their clients (Tommasello, 2004). Preparation for this role should begin in the undergraduate pharmacy training.

Experiential learning and other innovative teaching methods, for example, involving real patients (or simulated cases), audiovisual vignettes or other online modules may enhance pharmacy students’ understanding of substance dependence issues and attitudes.

One college of pharmacy in the United States, in addition to a required substance abuse course, offers an elective to illustrate addiction recovery principles. Students taking the elective are asked to give up a habit that is causing them problems for six weeks and they meet weekly to discuss the addiction recovery process. This course has been offered for 15 years and 50 per cent of the substance abuse course students are enrolled (Baldwin, 2008).

From the client consultation interviews

Clients’ need for pharmaceutical care
“I would have liked to know more about methadone before I started. It would have helped me make a better decision. You shouldn’t just tell a sick person ‘this will make you better.’ ”

“There has been a lack of care and communication and confusion with my HIV meds. The methadone wasn’t holding me due to medication interactions.”

“I felt sick for weeks and didn’t know it was because my dose was too high.”

The panel recommends that:

17. Professional organizations, addiction and mental health agencies and pharmacists’ employers promote the development of, and provide encouragement for all practising pharmacists to participate in, educational events on substance abuse and opioid dependence, including the growing problem of prescription opioid abuse. [III]

Most pharmacists receive little training on opioid dependence and treatment in their undergraduate experience, and it is important that all pharmacists further their knowledge in this area, even if they are not yet providing MMT services. There are indications that abuse and dependence on prescription opioids is increasing in Ontario and Canada. There was an increased number of patients addicted to prescription opioids entering the CAMH methadone maintenance program following the rapid expansion in the availability of MMT in Ontario in the 1990s (Brands et al., 2002; Brands et al., 2000). More recently, the number of individuals seeking detoxification treatment from controlled-release oxycodone at CAMH has also increased significantly (Sproule et al., 2009). In addition, in a cohort study of illicit opioid users, the proportion using prescription opioids increased from the year 2002 to 2005, with regional differences noted across Canada (Fischer et al., 2006). Pharmacists need to increase their knowledge base in prescription opioid addiction, particularly to understand the difference between addiction and physical dependence. Continuing education programs on pain treatment rarely (or inadequately) discuss the issue of opioid abuse and dependence.

A survey in British Columbia of 257 pharmacists (Cohen & McCormick, 2008) found that a slight majority reported training on how to identify signs of prescription drug misuse or abuse. This training was more common in younger pharmacists. The mean amount of training was 13.6 hours. Many pharmacists learned to identify prescription drug misuse through personal experience: they detected multi-doctoring using the provincial PharmaNet prescription drug profile or by recognizing early refills of prescriptions. Most intervened by calling the physician to confirm prescriptions or by confronting the customer directly. The primary reason they gave for not intervening was concern over how the customer might react (i.e., they were afraid that the client would be confrontational or they feared for their own safety). Pharmacists recommended additional training on prescription drug misuse.

Jones et al. (2005) surveyed 42 community pharmacists in Wales and found that at one month after a structured educational evening event there was little maintained change in attitudes. This suggests that changing attitudes is a long-term process. There is a need for reinforcing changes through continuing education.

Practising pharmacists (484) in Florida were surveyed while attending continuing education programs (Lafferty et al., 2006). Of the respondents, 67.5 per cent reported participating in two or fewer hours of addiction/ substance abuse education in pharmacy school and 29.2 per cent said they had received no addiction education. Pharmacists who had more education counselled clients more frequently and felt more confident in dealing with substance abuse clients. Of those surveyed, 53 per cent reported they had never referred a patient to substance abuse treatment in their whole career.

Brooks et al. (2001) conducted a survey in the United States of 556 pharmacists, comparing those who had taken training in addiction treatment to those who had not, and found that those who had taken training would more likely refer clients to community resources and be more involved in working with their chemically dependent clients.

The panel recommends that:

18. The Ontario College of Pharmacists revise the current requirements for pharmacies providing MMT services to mandate earlier training to promote safety. The designated manager and one pharmacist must complete the training within six months of starting to dispense methadone. [IV]

19. CAMH or another approved provider of methadone training develop a brief electronic document (e.g., one page) outlining the key safety features of providing MMT services that can be made available for immediate use by pharmacies initiating MMT services. [IV]

20. CAMH produce an electronic version of its most recent pharmacist’s guide to methadone maintenance treatment that can be purchased online and downloaded immediately so that pharmacies initiating MMT services can access it without delay. [IV]

21. CAMH make the online component of its Opioid Dependence Treatment Course available immediately upon enrolment to pharmacists new to providing MMT services, with the stipulation that these pharmacists attend the workshop component within six months of beginning the course. [IV]

22. CAMH or another approved provider of methadone training monitor and respond to waiting lists for training programs by, for example, offering the training more frequently or by exploring other delivery methods, such as webinars or video conferencing, to help meet the needs of pharmacists in remote areas. [IV]

Since undergraduate training on substance abuse and opioid dependence is lacking, most pharmacists do not have an adequate knowledge base from which to provide MMT services safely.

Having the most essential knowledge and references easily accessible and as early as possible will help facilitate pharmacies starting a methadone service and assist those who are deciding whether to provide MMT.

The online component of the CAMH Opiate Dependence Treatment Interprofessional Education Program would provide a good introduction to providing service, and a brief methadone information sheet would complement this program. The methadone information sheet could include some of the key points in providing MMT service, for example, observing dosing, diluting dose in orange drink, identifying the client, assessing the client for intoxication and informing the prescriber of missed doses.

Having a current version of the CAMH Pharmacist’s Guide available in a downloadable format would enable pharmacists to have this mandatory reference as soon as they need it. The other two references pharmacists dispensing methadone require, the CPSO Methadone Maintenance Guidelines and the OCP Policy for Dispensing Methadone, are currently available electronically.

The panel recommends that:

23. The Ontario College of Pharmacists and providers of methadone training collaborate on ongoing training requirements based on needs identified during the College’s pharmacy inspection process. [IV]

The Ontario College of Pharmacists undertakes regular inspections of community pharmacy practice in the province. Practice issues related to methadone service provision identified during these inspections could be shared with educational service providers for consideration in future training initiatives. This would be an effective mechanism for updating methadone training to reflect current practice issues in the field.

The panel recommends that:

24. CAMH or another approved provider of methadone education deliver methadone training in a manner consistent with interprofessional education principles. [IV]

Since MMT practice is best delivered in a collaborative manner (Health Canada, 2002), a multidisciplinary approach in education will prepare pharmacists to work effectively with other health professionals as a team.

The panel recommends that:

25. The Ontario College of Pharmacists and community colleges providing pharmacy technician training develop core competency requirements for regulated pharmacy technicians providing MMT services. [IV]

Pharmacy technicians are important members of the pharmacy team. They may be involved with preparing and dispensing methadone, and interact with MMT clients in the pharmacy. Core competencies should be developed and educational programs designed to optimize the role of pharmacy technicians in the safe delivery of methadone services. This issue may be particularly important in view of the new regulated status for pharmacy technicians that will be implemented soon in Ontario, where pharmacy technicians will be able to take more responsibility for dispensing.

The panel recommends that:

26. CAMH or another approved provider of methadone education undertake a needs assessment of pharmacists who have participated in the initial MMT training, and then use this information to develop an updated or advanced MMT course for pharmacists. [IV]

27. Professional pharmacy organizations, the Ontario College of Pharmacists, pharmacy managers/owners and hospital pharmacy directors encourage pharmacists to take courses on motivational interviewing, intervention strategies to use with difficult patients, and concurrent disorders, to enhance pharmacists’ skills in dealing with opioid-dependent clients. [IV]

Pharmacists who are already in MMT practice and have taken initial MMT training may wish to update and improve their skills. Since pharmacist training is recommended by the Ontario College of Pharmacists every five years, a new, higher level course would meet the needs of this experienced group of providers. Pharmacists who have taken initial MMT training should be surveyed for their input about topics to include within this higher level course. This advanced training could include, for example, methadone use in pregnancy, in patients with concurrent disorders (e.g., pain, psychiatric disorders, HIV) and in other special populations.

Any interaction with a client has therapeutic potential. Pharmacists using motivational techniques in their interactions with clients may enhance clients’ treatment. The issue of dealing with difficult, demanding clients has been identified by pharmacists as an area in which they would like more training (Cohen & McCormick, 2008). Training in de-escalation techniques to avoid potentially unsafe interactions could help pharmacists achieve greater satisfaction in their practice, as well as improve client outcomes.

The panel recommends that:

28. Drug information service providers ensure that staff is trained on and familiar with common issues in MMT treatment and have a mechanism to refer to experts when necessary. [IV]

Pharmacies must subscribe to a drug information provider service. The staff at the drug information provider should be able to respond to general questions on MMT and substance abuse. To do this they would require training in MMT to understand the patient safety issues and relevant guidelines. For more complex questions, the drug information service should have an arrangement with expert service providers to assist in consultation.

The panel recommends that:

29. Professional pharmacy organizations develop a mechanism in conjunction with the Ontario College of Pharmacists to ensure that pharmacists dispensing methadone are informed in a timely fashion of new educational resources available. [IV]

A timely direct communication via e-mail from the Ontario College of Pharmacists, the Ontario Pharmacists’ Association or another professional pharmacy organization is recommended when any new methadone-related item is posted on the website of either the OCP or the CPSO.

The panel recommends that:

30. Professional pharmacy organizations, CAMH and funding agencies develop a mentorship program to link new methadone service providers with experienced providers. [IV]

31. Professional pharmacy organizations and CAMH promote the CAMH Addiction Clinical Consultation Service to pharmacists providing MMT services. [IV]

The Addiction Clinical Consultation Service (ACCS) is a service provided by CAMH. It is designed to serve health and social service professionals, including pharmacists, who have client-specific questions related to substance abuse. The accs is not designed to deal with health emergencies or immediate or legal issues. The health care worker calls a central phone number and, depending on the question, accs may provide referral to a consultant team member (physician, therapist/counsellor or pharmacist) who will communicate with the health care worker within four hours. Awareness of the service should be promoted to support pharmacists providing methadone services.