The Ohio State University Alumni Association

Bringing education to the epidemic

Through Generation Rx, Ken Hale takes drug misuse message to millions


Ken Hale ’76, ’87 MA, ’95 PhD, earned the 2017 Alumni Medalist Award from The Ohio State University Alumni Association. He is a clinical professor of pharmacy at the university.

Sometimes a book can usher in a new chapter in a person’s life. It happened to Ken Hale, clinical professor of pharmacy at Ohio State, and thousands of people are benefiting as a result.

In 2006, concerned about the misuse of medications in America, Hale read the book Generation Rx: How Prescription Drugs are Altering American Lives, Minds, and Bodies by Greg Critser.

“I’d been considering ways to help prevent the problem of prescription drug misuse, but the book made me think in a fundamentally different way,” said Hale ’76, ’87 MA, ’95 PhD, who also serves as associate director of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery at Ohio State.

“I realized that the drug-taking culture in which we live underlies the myriad problems we experience when medications are misused.”

All around him, Hale saw the problems. An opioid epidemic gripped the nation, with millions addicted to prescription painkillers and their nonsynthetic counterpart, heroin. People were dying of drug overdoses in record numbers. Sadly, today, Ohio leads the nation in such deaths.

Hale, a lifelong Buckeye, decided it was time to do something. And he could do it here, at the university he knew so well.

“I was born on this campus at University Hospital, so Ohio State is in my DNA. I’ve earned three degrees here, I met my wife here, and I’m in my 42nd year working here.” Hale asked himself, “How do I take all these gifts I’ve been given and address this burning issue in our culture?”

His answer: Generation Rx, an educational program providing free resources to people of all ages about medication safety and the dangers of misusing prescription drugs. With the help of co-director Dr. Nicole Kwiek and other colleagues and students in the College of Pharmacy, the initiative was launched in 2007. Two years later, they joined forces with the Cardinal Health Foundation to take the program nationwide.

Hale and his team created presentations, videos, fact sheets and a website. They spoke around the country and offered help to anyone who asked. They found partners, including student chapters of the American Pharmacists Association, to spread the message. Since 2010, when it was broadened to colleges of pharmacy around the country (which now number 140), it has reached an estimated 37 million people.

Professor Emerita Marialice Bennett of Ohio State’s College of Pharmacy said she is impressed by Hale’s work, but not surprised. “He’s such a caring person, and he does everything in such a positive, humble way. It’s never about him; it’s all about getting the job done.”

Hale is one of Bennett’s former students. “Even then,” she said, “it was clear he was a leader and a quiet, gentle giant.”

True to form, Hale gives credit to the students involved with the program. “Students built most of our materials and resources,” he said. “We want people to know certain key facts when they get these medications. Here’s how you should use them, store them and dispose of them. You should know that these drugs have been implicated in overdose deaths, and we don’t want you to become one of those statistics. So, let’s use these drugs right from the very beginning.”

Alternatives to medication also should be used, including diet, exercise and physical therapy, Hale said “No other country in the world uses opioids like the United States. Americans make up just 5 percent of the world’s population but use 80 percent of all opioid medications,” he said.

Safe medication practices can help prevent drug misuse, Hale said, but it’s going to take more than that to combat the opioid epidemic. In August, President Trump declared the epidemic a national public health emergency. Hale said that should marshal more resources, but it’s too early to tell where they’ll be directed.

What Hale does know is this: The entire community must pull together. It was another book, this one called Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones, that convinced him.

Dreamland, which examines the nation’s opioid crisis, draws its title from a swimming pool in Portsmouth, Ohio. Hale used to swim in that very pool.

“I lived in Portsmouth in seventh grade, and the pool was such a big part of our community,” Hale said. “We’d play there, and people took their dates there, and there were parties and dances.”

But when the economy in southeast Ohio collapsed, the pool closed. Not long after that, pill mills moved into Portsmouth — there were 13 in this city of about 20,000 at one time — and Ohio became the epicenter of the opioid crisis.

“Dreamland disappeared physically and metaphorically,” Hale said. “The author suggests part of the problem is that the support, mentoring and oversight that happened in a tighter community went away.” The same story is playing out in countless towns around the country.

And that makes Generation Rx even more vital, because it is pulling communities back together. Several communities recently were awarded grants to work with Generation Rx leaders, Ohio State Extension educators, and Kroger pharmacists to develop an opioid education program for youth. The Generation Rx Initiative is also partnering with Kroger pharmacies to launch an opioid patient education program in southeastern Ohio. And a Generation Rx Lab operates at the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus. Run by scientists from the College of Pharmacy at Ohio State, the lab gives young learners the opportunity to conduct hands-on experiments about the science of drugs and educates them about medication safety — knowledge that this next generation will take back to their communities.

For information about Generation Rx, visit generationrx.org.