Prescription medication misuse on the rise: experts appeal for action

By: Samantha Thorne, MedicalSearch reporter
31 August, 2015

Expert clinicians and patient advocates are appealing for urgent action to curb Australia's spiralling problem with prescription medication misuse.

Clinicians, researchers and advocates are meeting at ScriptWise's 2015 Australian Overdose Awareness Week event in Perth to spread awareness and educate the community on the risks associated with medication misuse and overdose.

A message for doctors and pharmacists to take away from the event will be the importance and need to work in a collaborative manner to tackle what is clearly proving itself to be an escalating public health issue.

Kim Ledger, Patron of ScriptWise, and father of the late Oscar award winning actor, Heath Ledger, who died from an accidental overdose of prescription medication, will deliver the event's keynote address at the Heath Ledger Theatre.

Ledger said, "Australian fatalities from prescription medication misuse are on the rise. Tragically, almost four Australians die from an overdose each day, most of which are linked to prescription medications."

Statistics have shown Perth to have the highest incidence of fatal overdose of any Australian capital city.

Recently, medication safety has been in the spotlight, with experts calling for increased awareness around the over-prescribing of opioid medications for pain.

Laureate Professor Nick Talley from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, said opioids are now amongst the most over-prescribed pain medications in Australia, and new evidence suggests that their effectiveness in treating chronic and long-term pain is limited.

The latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) report found painkiller misuse has increased from 4.8 per cent of the population in 2010 up to 7.7 per cent in 2013.

Statistics also show that Australian prescriptions for Oxycodone increased more than 152 per cent between 2002 and 2008.

"I think it is now accepted that these drugs have caused significant public health problems, including overdose, and we now need to reign in the problem by cautious prescribing," Talley said.

Dr Matthew Frei, who is the RACP Chapter of Addiction Medicine President said that educating doctors and rethinking how pain can be treated is one way to reduce the incidence of inappropriate prescribing.

According to Frei, treatment plans need to be drawn up carefully by doctors before considering the option of prescribing strong opioids, because in the case of non-cancer pain, once an addiction to pharmaceutical opioids develops, that can become extremely hard to manage.

"There needs to be a clear message that these medications are for short-term use, as an adjunct to physical and psychological therapies."

According to Talley, our recent understanding around chronic pain is at a much more sophisticated level; we now know that pain is actually produced in the brain and not directly at the site of the injury or body part.

"This new understanding requires a different and comprehensive pain management plan which may include physical exercise, psychological assessment, diet or rehabilitation to treat pain rather than prescribing opioid medication which can ultimately lead to addiction," Talley said.

"There are many ways to tackle this problem head on, but the approach needs to be collaborative to be effective – everyone has a role including the medical profession, the government and of course individuals and families.

"Access to treatment from an addiction medicine specialist service is essential for people with problem pharmaceutical opioid use," Talley said.

Approximately ten million prescriptions are written every year for benzodiazepines; which estimates one in fifty Australians are currently taking the drug, and have been doing so for longer than six months.

ScriptWise CEO Bee Mohamed encourages collaboration: "A coordinated approach is not only pivotal to preventing prescription medication addiction and overdose, but also for ensuring treatment options are made available."