Program Profile

Responding to the Opioid Crisis: An Indian Health Service Pharmacist-Led Pain Management Clinic

An IHS pharmacy pain management clinic has emphasized judicious opioid prescribing, reduced overdose risk in the community, and improved patient functionality and quality of care through close pharmacotherapy monitoring.

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According to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), about 100 million people live with chronic pain in the U.S.1 There is evidence for the use of opioids to treat acute pain lasting 12 weeks or less. However, high-quality studies that analyze the benefit and safety of long-term opioid therapy are not yet available.2 In 2013, 249 million opioid prescriptions were written, equivalent to about 1 prescription per adult living in the U.S.3

Between 1999 and 2008, nonmedical use of prescription pain killers in the American Indian and Alaska Native populations was 2 to 3 times the frequency found in the white and black populations, respectively.1 These clinically contradictory practices created an environment conducive to opioid abuse and overdose. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 people on chronic opioid therapy struggle with addiction.4 In 2014, more than 14,000 people in the U.S. died from overdoses involving prescription opioids.

The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 authorized prescription drug monitoring programs (PMPs) and a task force to create optimal pain treatment practices.5 The American Pharmacists Association (APhA), a major proponent of this law, argued that pharmacists are an underutilized resource despite having valuable clinical knowledge in the initiation, monitoring, and discontinuation of opioids. Additionally, pharmacists are able to refer patients to nonpharmacologic forms of pain management and dispense naloxone for emergent opioid overdose reversal.

Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy developed the Turn the Tide Rx campaign to curb and reverse the opioid crisis in the U.S.3 The website offers a pledge for clinicians who agree to be educated about pain management. It encourages open communication among prescribers and contains guideline-based resources on assessing pain and addiction risk, appropriate opioid prescribing, and how to manage opioid overdose. As required by law for prescribers in most states, there are instructions on how to access and analyze PMP opioid usage. The website also provides fact sheets about opioid treatments, safe disposal of medications, and helpline information.

Local Opioid Misuse Initiatives

New Mexico (NM) has one of the nation’s highest opioid and heroin overdose death rates.6 In January 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the University of New Mexico Health and Sciences Center partnered to launch the Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education Initiative. The partners recognized that joint action between medical sciences and law enforcement was crucial to address the consequences of the opioid epidemic on public health and safety.

In 2017, the IHS established the National Committee on Heroin, Opioids, and Pain Efforts. Comprised of a variety of pharmacy and other subject-matter experts, this committee has a multipronged strategy to address the opioid epidemic from training to expanding medication-assisted treatment.7

Pharmacists provide clinical services in a variety of interdisciplinary ambulatory care clinics at Gallup Indian Medical Center (GIMC) in NM. The GIMC is located outside reservation boundaries but is centrally located to serve Navajo, Zuni, and a variety of other native populations. Pharmacist-run clinics include diabetes mellitus, anticoagulation, asthma, anemia, infectious diseases, and chronic pain. At GIMC, pain management pharmacists use a collective approach to curb opioid misuse. This article describes the establishment and impact of a pharmacist-led pain management clinic (PMC) at GIMC.

Pain Management Clinic

The understaffed urgent care clinic (UCC), emergency department (ED), primary care, and specialty practices plus a growing burden of complicated pain patients incentivized the development of the GIMC PMC. Under a collaborative practice agreement, pain management pharmacists were tasked with assessing, treating, and controlling noncancer chronic pain while improving quality of care and patient satisfaction (eAppendix 1, available at The PMC goal was to improve functionality and pain scores and to reduce patient visits to the UCC and ED.

Originally, the PMC only performed medication titration for patients. In 2012, a former pharmacy resident became the PMC coordinator and has since helped to transform and expand its services. Currently, the coordinator dedicates about 20 hours per week managing pain patients in various capacities. Over time, other pain management pharmacists joined the PMC and support activities for 5 to 10 hours per week. There are now 4 pain management pharmacists who rotate through the PMC.

Pain management clinic visits generally are held once weekly for 3 hours and are occasionally expanded to full days based on patient schedule load. The initial 2 PMC appointments for each patient are 1 hour and are held within a 2-week period. Subsequent visits are each 30 minutes at 1 to 2 month intervals, depending on patient pain level and medication titration requirements. This standardized follow-up ensures new patients receive the close monitoring of slow dosage titrations necessary to achieve maximum therapeutic benefit.


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