Time for real-time prescription monitoring

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 resourcestools 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.

How safe is the patient safety net?

In the ‘Blogging on Demand’ series you get to choose the topic. If you have a great idea you want the world to know about, feel free to contact me. Perth GP Dr Jacquie Garton-Smith proposes a change to the PBS safety net to protect vulnerable patients.

“One thing that my patients with chronic disease on lower incomes find difficult,” says Dr Garton-Smith, “is that they have to pay for all their medications until they hit the safety net. Even if people are only paying the lower rate for scripts, it adds up if they are on a number of medications. I have seen it affect compliance at the beginning of the year when they have to decide which medications they need most.”

The general patient safety net threshold is currently $1,453.90, and the concessional threshold $366. When someone or their family’s total co-payments reach this amount, they only have to pay the concessional co-payment amount of $6.10 until the end of the calendar year. Concessional card holders get standard PBS scripts for free after they reach the threshold.

The PBS co-payment and safety net amounts, effective from 1 January 2015:

General patient co-payment: $37.70

Concessional co-payment: $6.10

General safety net threshold: $1,453.90

Concessional safety net threshold: $366.00.

A safer solution

Garton-Smith: “Loading the costs into a few months of the year and then being free the rest of the year for concessional card holders is concerning. My patients tell me the safety net is supposed to help them but doesn’t – until it kicks in. For someone who has diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolaemia, arthritis, reflux, depression and sometimes osteoporosis, asthma or COPD, you can see the impact. This is not an unusual scenario.”

“It would be so much easier if the cost could be spread out over the year for people likely to hit the safety net. It would also prevent people attempting to stock-pile at the end of the year. I realise most people don’t get more than 5 scripts a month but those who need to are often managing serious health problems.”

Medication adherence 

Research has shown that when co-payments for medications increase, more people stop their treatment. This includes essential preventive medications, and as a result more visits to the doctor and hospital may be required.

Associate professor Michael Ortiz said in Australian Prescriber: “Some have argued that greater cost sharing does not undermine overall patient health because patients facing rising costs will reduce their consumption of perceived non-essential medications more than their consumption of essential drugs. However, ‘preventive’ drugs are different, because not all patients understand the long-term benefits of taking medicines for conditions such as hypertension and hypercholesterolaemia.”

“Some of my patients need to delay filling scripts they see as less essential

Garton-Smith: “A patient I have seen needs to buy more than ten medications every month at a cost of $85. Sometimes there are extra costs, for example if he needs antibiotics. On a single disability pension he gets $840.20 per fortnight, so approximately 5% of his income is spent on scripts until he reaches the safety net threshold, generally by May. Even though he gets a lot of prescriptions filled just before the end of December, he usually needs to delay filling scripts that he sees as less essential at the start of the year.”

Professor Michael Ortiz in Australian Prescriber: “The current approach to PBS savings is that the Government takes most of the cost savings, but increases co-payments and safety net thresholds each year in line with inflation. Increasing co-payments reduces medication adherence and ultimately may compromise the care of some patients.”

Thanks to Dr Jacquie Garton-Smith for the topic suggestion.

The looming war between pharmacists and doctors

The looming war between pharmacists and doctors
Image: Pixabay.com
The war (…) was an unnecessary condition of affairs, and might have been avoided if forbearance and wisdom had been practised on both sides ~ Robert E. Lee

Separating the medication prescribers from the dispensers has merit. One of the advantages is that doctors and pharmacists don’t get tempted to diagnose problems to sell more drugs.

The Australian Pharmacy Guild wants to change this. They prefer pharmacists to do health checks, give advice and perform interventions such as vaccinations – while at the same time selling the solution to the problems they identify.

The Guild’s strategy is marketed as providing better access to patient care, and is apparently based on overwhelming international evidence. Indeed, in some countries pharmacists offer a wider range of services.

I’m not sure it’s always better overseas. One New Zealand doctor seemed very unhappy about pharmacists managing medical problems (and I have heard similar stories from other countries):

“I practise in New Zealand where pharmacists are allowed to treat ‘easy’ diagnoses like urinary tract infection [UTI]. Last week I consulted with a young lady who had had two diagnoses of UTI and two courses of trimethoprim [an antibiotic]. When I examined her she had a significant UTI, thrush and the possibility of a chlamydia infection, results awaited. Nothing is ‘easy’ in medicine!

The Pharmacy Guild may be a politically clever bunch, but they should have suggested a multidisciplinary solution here. Their strategy will create a backlash. In the end nobody will be better off.

Where to from here?

The signs are on the wall. Dispensing medications is not sustainable for pharmacies. Just like video rental shops had to change their business model because people started downloading movies and using automated DVD rental kiosks, this particular part of the pharmacist’s job may soon be history. The authors of an article in the British Pharmaceutical Journal ‘Dispensing: it’s time to let it go’ said: “If the aspirations of pharmacy fulfilling a clinical role integral to public healthcare is ever to be realised, community pharmacists must shift their focus away from dispensing and towards NHS service provision.”

The key here is integration. According to the authors medications could be provided in-house by health care organisations or delivered by mail, and the focus of pharmacists should be on providing integrated services like medication reviews and drug utilisation reviews. This would indeed employ the skills of pharmacists and at the same time ad value to patient care provided by other health professionals.

Or maybe pharmacists should be made responsible for quality control of over-the-counter medicines and help to stamp out misleading claims made by the domestic complementary medicines industry.

We need honest medication advice. “(…) It comes as a shock to walk into some pharmacies to see them urging products on customers where there is no evidence base of effectiveness,” said NHMRC boss Professor Warwick Anderson recently. “If you’re providing advice and care to patients, you should be clear about the evidence for the treatment.”

The pharmacy industry is comfortably protected by their community pharmacy agreement with the Federal Government, and state laws stipulate only pharmacists can own a pharmacy. A new pharmacy cannot set up shop close to an existing pharmacy. Other professions, like doctors and lawyers, don’t have this competition protection.

The service expansion drift of pharmacy-owners will eventually provoke a response from the AMA and RACGP and other medical organisations. The idea of the pharmacist in general practice has been floating around for a while. Doctors may demand dispensing rights and lobby for an end to the pharmacy cartel.

A study in the Medical Journal of Australia showed that dispensing doctors issued fewer PBS scripts than non-dispensing doctors. This is one argument for dispensaries in GP surgeries; other arguments are evidence-based medication advice and consumer convenience. Think about it: What’s easier than, after having seen the doctor, walking to the dispensing machine in the hallway, scanning your script and receiving your medications? Robotic dispensing reduces medication errors (see video below) and nobody is suggesting multivitamins, supplements or probiotics at the same time.

But just because a service is more convenient, doesn’t mean that it is a good solution. Doctors should not do the pharmacist’s job, just like pharmacists would do well to stay away from medical services.

There is still time

Pharmacy-owners face reduced profits because the Government has set lower prices for generic medications under the price disclosure arrangements. Although it is understandable they are looking for other income streams, this is a dead-end. The last thing we need is a war between pharmacists and doctors.

Needless to say it’s not in the interest of health consumers. It will create confusion, duplication, false reassurance, frustration, missed screening opportunities, fragmentation of care and higher costs.

Doctors have to accept change too. If people feel they cannot access a GP when they need to, we should improve this. One solution would be to fund nurse-lead walk-in vaccination services within the safe, clinical environment of the GP surgery. The pharmacist can play a role as part of the multidisciplinary team.

The current community pharmacy agreement expires in June 2015. There is still time.

Follow me on Twitter: @EdwinKruys

Doctor, do I have to stay on these medications?

This is the first article in the ‘Blogging on Demand’ series. If you have a topic you want me to blog about, feel free to send an email, contact me via social media or leave a comment below. Jen Morris picked the topic of this post. She tweeted me saying: “I’d love a GP view on polypharmacy, deprescribing & importance of reviewing and stopping treatment, not just continuing indefinitely.”

I really like this topic. I’ll explain why. It’s fair to say I have a love-hate relationship with medications. They can do a lot of good, but also cause misery. Prescribing drugs is a bit like cooking, and getting the balance of the different ingredients right an art: Use too little and your dinner guests are unimpressed, use too much and it becomes unpalatable.

There are many guidelines in medicine informing us when to use which ingredients, but unlike cooking books, they never tell when a dish should be taken out of the oven, or, in other words, when to stop treatment. This is odd, especially as patients often rightly ask: “Doctor, do I have to stay on these medications for the rest of my life?”

Here is a summary of the why, when and how to stop long-term medications – based on the limited amount of evidence available. For more information I refer to the sources mentioned below.

#1: Why stop medications?

Research shows that elderly people often feel better after their medication is discontinued. One study found that only 2% of the medications had to be restarted because the original symptoms reoccurred. This suggests that many people take medications unnecessarily.

It is estimated that up to 30% of hospital admissions for elderly patients are related to the medications they take. Reviewing the medication list periodically is therefore important, for example after the annual home medication review by the pharmacist.

#2: When to consider stopping

There may be good reasons why, after review, it is better to continue long-term medications. But there are 5 circumstances when stopping should be considered:

  1. A patient is taking multiple (more than 4) drugs
  2. An adverse drug reaction is suspected
  3. The drug doesn’t work (anymore)
  4. A patient experiences falls or cognitive decline
  5. The condition of the patient improves or worsens dramatically.

 #3: How to stop

Deprescribing can be done safely, but is not without risks. Withdrawal symptoms, rebound syndromes and reappearance of the original symptoms may occur. Medication withdrawal should be undertaken in consultation with a doctor.

The literature suggests different methods, but I particularly like the following simple 5-step approach:

  1. Prepare: Always consider the option of deprescribing at the start of a therapy, in case it is required later on.
  2. Recognise the need to stop: are any of the above mentioned 5 circumstances applicable?
  3. Prioritise one drug at a time to stop.
  4. Wean, especially benzodiazepines, opioids, beta blockers, corticosteroids, and levodopa.
  5. Monitor: Look out for withdrawal symptoms, discontinuation and rebound syndromes, reoccurrence of illness, falls, and changes in cognition and quality of life.

Research into deprescribing has mainly been done in elderly people taking multiple drugs. I believe it is not unreasonable to apply the same principles to younger people, even if they are on a smaller amount of long-term medications.

I always find it extremely satisfying if we manage to cut the number or dose of someone’s medications – and most patients seem to be equally pleased. Less is sometimes more.

Thanks to Jen Morris for the topic suggestion.