It’s a sobering fact: apparently more people die from drug overdose than road traffic crashes.
Perhaps even more concerning is that most of these overdose deaths in Australia are not caused by illicit drugs, but by the fatal mixture of two or more pharmaceuticals – often medications I and my colleagues prescribe to help people improve the quality of their lives.
Take-home message one: The combination of opioids (like oxycontin) and medications such as benzodiazepines (e.g. valium) can be fatal – even more so if mixed with alcohol.
Dealing with drug dependence
Abuse of prescription drugs is a big problem and doctors and pharmacists are often unaware that some of their patients collect prescriptions from several prescribers and pharmacies. This can go unnoticed because our computer systems are not yet linked and the reporting systems have flaws.
For several years the RACGP, AMA and other health bodies have called for the introduction of Australia-wide Electronic Reporting and Recording of Controlled Drugs (ERRCD). Coroners have also been advocating fiercely for an ERRCD system.
Prescribers and dispensers should be able to access and share prescription information but this has only been happening in real-time in Tasmania.
Since 2009 doctors and pharmacists in Tasmania can access prescription information if there is a legitimate clinical need, via a secured, encrypted website. The information includes what opioid medications have been dispensed and when, and if there are concerns about drug dependence or ‘drug seeking’ behaviour.
The Tasmanian real-time prescription monitoring system has stopped doctor-shopping for restricted drugs. Similar data comes from overseas: New York has seen in a 75% drop in patients seeing multiple prescribers after the introduction of ERRCD.
Some sources claim the Tasmanian system has reduced opioid-related deaths, although it has been argued we need a better way of analysing prescription drug deaths.
ERRCD is an essential tool to help prescribers and dispensers, but is only one part of the solution to reduce opioid prescription misuse. We also need to review how we look after at-risk patients, including those living with mental health problems or substance use disorder.
Road to recovery
Chances are that I may actually not improve the quality of my patients’ lives by prescribing opioids or benzodiazepines long-term. There are drawbacks: side effects, risk of dependence, serious bodily harm and death. Occasionally the drugs can make the pain worse, a phenomenon called opioid-induced hyperalgesia.
Take-home message two: There is limited evidence of the long-term efficacy of opioids for the management of chronic non-cancer pain.
Some have argued that opiates such as Endone (oxycodone) have become the new paracetamol and that we also need to reappraise the treatment of pain in the acute setting.
GP teams, allied health practitioners and pharmacists will play a crucial role to help tackle the issues around drugs of addiction – while supporting their patients at the same time. Sometimes input will be required from addiction, mental health or pain disciplines.
Many resources, tools and education opportunities are available to assist doctors. Meanwhile, state governments need to get on with the much-needed introduction of real-time prescription monitoring programs that will ultimately connect into a national network.