Keynote speaker Dan Schneider, from the Netflix documentary “The Pharmacist,” discusses his story and mission to end the opioid epidemic.
During the opening session of the APhA2021 Annual Meeting & Exposition, which is being held virtually March 12-15, keynote speaker Dan Schneider from the Netflix documentary The Pharmacist shared his inspirational work in combating the opioid epidemic in the United States and offered advice for pharmacists who are motivated to do the same.
Schneider, a pharmacist from Louisiana, lost his son in 1999 when he was murdered while buying opioids illegally. With little help from the police and stigma permeating the circumstances of his son’s death, Schneider decided to take it upon himself to achieve some measure of justice. By engaging with community members and with the help of recovering addicts, Schneider was able to solve his son’s murder.
Upon finding some sense of closure, Schneider made it his mission to combat the opioid epidemic by educating students and health care professionals on the stigma and dangers surrounding opioid addiction. Schneider admitted that, at the time, even at his own job, he noticed a pattern of young patients with less-than-severe pain having opioid prescriptions filled, and it didn’t sit right with him. When he initially failed to incite change through contacting his state medical board, Schneider and his wife took it upon themselves to record one physician who was selling opioid prescriptions to her patients late at night. He was able to document her malpractice and subsequently reported it to local TV stations in their area and the medical board.
“Within 3 days, she was summarily suspended, never to practice again,” he said.
However, Schneider acknowledged that there are many parties accountable for the persistence of the US opioid epidemic.
Who Is Accountable?
“It is shared responsibility, and there’s a lot of blame to go around,” he explained. However, Schneider was certain that Purdue Pharmaceuticals’ activities in misleading patients and the FDA about oxycontin and other highly addictive opioids were the most damaging. Although the drugs were originally intended for limited or short-term uses, such as for cancer pain, Purdue expanded the use to include chronic pain. “And that was actually the beginning of the opiate crisis,” he said.
Greed and failure to effectively intervene on the problem involves many players within the health care system and continues to fuel the high opioid addiction rate, according to Schneider. Schneider also believes that FDA holds responsibility for approving opioids for chronic pain. Malpractice from physicians and pharmacists has an additional hand in the national problem, he said.
Dual Epidemics: COVID-19 and Opioid Addiction
By the end of 2019, the opioid death rate was decreasing, and some were hopeful that the crisis had peaked. However, yet another effect of the COVID-19 pandemic was the surge in opioid deaths. In 2019, there were about 72,000 overdose-related deaths in the US; in 2020, it was nearly 82,000 – or 225 deaths per day, according to Schneider.
“COVID caused isolation. It increased depression, it increased stress for those that were in recovery. It hurt their chances at meeting together with people…all of the sudden they were alone,” Schneider said. These changes can easily trigger relapse.
Continue Schneider’s Mission
To combat both the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis, pharmacists must be proactive. Schneider emphasized that naloxone could save an individual’s life in the event of an overdose. Pharmacists are positioned to offer and counsel on the use of naloxone.
“Every opioid prescription series should probably go out with naloxone…it should be signed that they refused to take it,” Schneider said. “[The pharmacist] is the gatekeeper. While he’s talking to these people, he can discuss the addiction potential, the respiratory depression, and the potential for death.”
In addition, Schneider began an organization, Tunnel of Hope, that confronts the political range of pursuing change. He intends to build what he calls a “pharmacist-people’s lobby” that will confront state and federal legislatures to move the needle on issues related to the opioid crisis.
One of those issues is the persistent stigma surrounding opioid addiction and abuse. “We actually should make an effort to, if not decriminalize – which is something we got to look at – at least make criminal secondary,” in opioid abuse, Schneider said. “If you take an early user and you brand him as a criminal, well, that creates the stigma.”
Though these reforms will take considerable time and resources, Schneider passionately affirmed that pharmacists at the individual level can improve the state of the opioid crisis, both in their store and out in the community.
The Pharmacist is now available on Netflix.