A Conversation with Papatya Tankut about Prescription Drug Abuse

Our Vice President of Pharmacy Affairs, Papatya Tankut, weighs in on the nation's prescription drug abuse epidemic.

Why does CVS Health consider prescription drug abuse such an important focus area?

I think when people think about prescription drugs being abused, they think about it happening somewhere else: to another family, in another town, in another state. But as someone who works for a national pharmacy chain, I can tell you that the epidemic of prescription drug abuse stretches from coast to coast. It causes indiscriminate damage to countless lives and millions of dollars of unnecessary health care costs every year.

As a society, we cannot simply choose to ignore this epidemic. As it is, the scale and scope of the issue has gotten bigger year after year. The longer we wait to act, the more intractable this crisis becomes. It’s a focus area for us because it threatens the health and wellbeing of the communities where we and our customers live and work.

What kind of impact do you think you can have on curtailing and stopping abuse?

As far as helping to mitigate the issue, I think we can have a tremendous impact. Are we going to single-handedly stop prescription drug abuse? Unfortunately, the answer is “no.” But we believe that by identifying and working with allies and partners, like The Partnership at Drugfree.org, as well as policy makers and regulators, we can maximize that impact to bring about lasting systemic change.

And, as a company, we see this as an obligation, as the right thing to do for our customers and patients. And our 26,000 pharmacists see it as their professional duty to make sure medications are not being prescribed or used improperly.

You mentioned that the problem threatens to become “intractable.” Can it even be fixed at this point?

Absolutely. The prescription drug abuse epidemic certainly doesn’t have to be as formidable as it is today. There are a lot of variables, beyond pharmacy care, that have to align in order to have a sweeping and significant impact, but we remain hopeful this sort of alignment is already beginning to happen. The solutions to this issue exist, whether they are through legislative and policy fixes, technology advances, changes in processes and procedures, or though education and awareness efforts. We will get there, but, as I said, only through effective partnerships.

You are a pharmacist and worked behind the pharmacy counter. What does this crisis look like from that point-of-view?

Personally, I got into this profession because, like many of my colleague at CVS Health, I wanted to help people and have a positive impact on their health. As a retail pharmacist, many of the people you see would understandably rather not see you. They or a loved one are sick or they’re in pain. They need medicine, yes, but they also need patience, compassion and empathy. It is in my nature to provide these things. However, those who are addicted to prescription drugs often seek to capitalize on that. So pharmacists must exercise an immense amount of clinical and professional judgment. Who has a legitimate prescription and is truly in need of pain killers and who has fabricated a very convincing, albeit phony, profile of a patient in need? Distinguishing between these two kinds of people was something I had to do regularly to prevent abuse and it’s not always as easy as it sounds.

Can a pharmacist refuse to fill a prescription or may not be prescribed for a legitimate purpose?

Not only can they refuse to fill it, it is their duty to do so if they believe or suspect for any reason it is illegitimate. And denying someone their medication is not something any pharmacist takes lightly. We will know when our efforts are successful around prescription drug abuse when the technology and systems pharmacists use will afford them a heightened degree of certainty when it comes to making these tough calls. When the system can quickly turn “suspicion” into “confirmation” with regard to suspected abuse, we will know we are having a tremendous impact on deterrence and on stopping the epidemic in its tracks.