Buprenorphine dispensing in an epicenter of the U.S. opioid epidemic: A case study of the rural risk environment in Appalachian Kentucky

Hannah LF Cooper, David H. Cloud, Patricia R. Freeman, Monica Fadanelli, Travis Green, Connor Van Meter, Stephanie Beane, Umedjon Ibragimov, April M. Young

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


Background: Buprenorphine is a cornerstone to curbing opioid epidemics, but emerging data suggest that rural pharmacists in the US sometimes refuse to dispense this medication. We conducted a case study to explore buprenorphine dispensing practices in 12 rural Appalachian Kentucky counties, and analyze whether and how they were shaped by features of the rural risk environment. Methods: In this case study, we conducted one-on-one semi-structured interviews with 14 pharmacists operating 15 pharmacies in these counties to explore buprenorphine dispensing practices and perceived influences on these practices. Thematic analyses of the resulting transcripts revealed three features of the rural risk environment that shaped dispensing. To explore these three risk environment features, we analyzed policy documents (e.g., Attorney General lawsuits) and administrative databases (e.g., incarceration data). Textual documents were analyzed using thematic analyses and administrative data were analyzed using descriptive statistics; memoes explored relationships among risk environment features and dispensing practices. Results: Twelve of the 15 pharmacies limited dispensing, by refusing to serve new patients; limiting dispensing to known patients or prescribers; or refusing to dispense buprenorphine altogether. Concerns about exceeding a “Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) cap” on opioid dispensing stifled dispensing. A legacy of aggressive and fraudulent marketing of opioid analgesics (OAs) by pharmaceutical companies and physician OA overprescribing undermined pharmacist trust in buprenorphine and in its prescribers. The escalating local war on drugs may have undermined dispensing by reinforcing stigma against people who use drugs. Conclusions: Initiatives to increase buprenorphine prescribing must be accompanied by policy changes to increase dispensing. Specifically, buprenorphine should be removed from opioid monitoring systems; efforts to de-escalate the war on drugs should be extended to encompass rural areas; initiatives to dismantle aggressive OA marketing should be strengthened; and efforts to re-build pharmacist trust in physicians are needed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102701
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
StatePublished - Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier B.V.


  • Buprenorphine
  • implementation chasm
  • pharmacists
  • risk environment
  • rural areas

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Health Policy


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