A new federal program to take unused prescription medications out of circulation presents a unique opportunity for retail pharmacies to increase touch points with customers. These touch points, in turn, can lead to improved health for patients and improved business for pharmacies.

That’s according to Tony Willoughby, McKesson vice president and chief pharmacist of Health Mart. Health Mart, a McKesson pharmacy franchise, operates more than 3,600 independently owned community pharmacies across the country.

“Any time you get a chance to interact with a patient, you’re building a stronger relationship,” Willoughby says.

Under the program, which was announced in September by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, retail pharmacies can become authorized collectors of unused or unwanted prescription medications, including controlled substances, under the purview of the DEA. The final regulations implementing the program, which took effect Oct. 9, also apply to hospitals and clinics with on-site pharmacies. Participation in the program is voluntary.

“DEA’s goal in implementing (the program) is to expand the options available to safely and securely dispose of potentially dangerous prescription medications on a routine basis,” the agency says.

Previously, the DEA allowed unused controlled substances to be disposed of only at specific, approved locations, such as certain police and fire stations and at certain city and county waste sites. The DEA did not allow retail pharmacies to accept them. The new rules change that. However,  inconsistent state laws, along with new operational costs of becoming an authorized collector, still may present obstacles to some interested retail pharmacies, according to Willoughby.

“You have to have a secure collection receptacle. You have to keep the collected medications in a separate stock area. And you have to have an agreement with a reverse drug distributor that will accept and destroy the collected medications appropriately,” Willoughby says.

With clear federal regulations in place, retail pharmacies in states with similar provisions should consider becoming authorized collectors. The benefits of doing so will more than outweigh the operational costs, which Willoughby describes as minor.

  1. Providing a community service: By taking unused or unwanted prescriptions drugs out of circulation, retail pharmacies eliminate specific behaviors that can harm overall community health status. For example, trace amounts of drugs have been found in local water supplies because people often dispose of unused or unwanted prescription medications by flushing them down the toilet or pouring them down the sink. Also, such drugs left in medicine cabinets can be stolen or misused.

  2. Improving patient health through increased medication adherence: A pharmacist may notice that a customer consistently returns unused pills, which could be a sign that the patient may not be taking his or her prescription appropriately. That creates an opportunity for the pharmacist to intervene and correct any prescribing problem that may exist. “Any time that you have an opportunity for a patient to come in with their medication and have a conversation, it’s one more opportunity to have an impact on that patient’s health,” Willoughby says.

  3. New business: Customers who come in to retail pharmacies to return unused or unwanted medications represent increased foot traffic that can lead to additional sales revenue. Conversely, customers who come in to return unused or unwanted medications but are turned away may not come back at all. “It never feels good as a provider of care to say no to someone who is looking for help,” Willoughby says.

From a national standpoint, the success of the new DEA program will be measured by the number of unused or unwanted prescription medications turned in to authorized collectors. It remains to be seen whether that number is more or less than the number turned in during national prescription drug take-back events. For local retail pharmacies, success will be measured by the number of strengthened customer relationships that result in better health for patients and better business health for pharmacies.