Dispensing of medication can be described as preparing, packaging, labeling and then providing the medication to a patient or their representative to be taken at a later time. Dispensing is different than administering medication where the medication is provided to the patient for immediate dosing via the prescribed route.

The 2018 Lawbook for Pharmacy, under California's Business and Professions Code states "Dispense… means and refers to the furnishing of drugs or devices directly to a patient by a physician, dentist, optometrist, podiatrist, or veterinarian, or by a certified nurse-midwife, nurse practitioner, naturopathic doctor, or physician assistant acting within the scope of his or her practice." There is no reference to registered nurse or licensed nurse for the act of dispensing.

Nurses are responsible and accountable to provide safe, competent and ethical care to the community and the patients they serve. Each state Board of Nursing determines the Standards of Practice through the Nurse Practice Act. Most states collaborate with the Business and Professions Code to further define, or amend, regulations for dispensing and administration of medications.

For example, in California, the California Board of Registered Nursing and the California Business and Professions Code was amended in 2013 to allow for registered nurses in that state to dispense certain medications under specific circumstances to aid in the distribution of contraceptive medication. A registered nurse may dispense medications such as self-administered hormonal contraceptives once the nurse has been trained and deemed competent in providing the ordered medications.

Licensed nurses in North Dakota may "distribute" a medication to a patient to be taken at a later time as long as the pharmacist or physician has labeled the package with the patient name, medication, dose, instruction for use, and expiration date. With a written order in the patient's record, the nurse may then hand the package of medication to the patient or designee. The pharmacist or physician must also provide medication education to the patient.

There are currently 16 states in the U.S. that allow registered nurses to dispense a limited number of medications under specific criteria. Nurses must refer to their individual state Board of Nursing for direction on dispensing medication in their state.

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