Most Overdose Deaths Now Due To Prescription Drugs

Drug cocktails, doctor-shopping and over-prescription lead to spike in fatalities

In 2016, drug-related deaths in Australia hit a 20-year high.

But unlike decades past, when most victims of drug-related deaths were inner-city heroin users, these days, many more people die from using – and abusing – prescription drugs that they got from a doctor rather than a dealer.

The most recent data shows 1045 Australians died from opioid overdoses in 2016. 76 per cent of those deaths involved pharmaceutical opioids such as oxycodone, morphine, codeine, tramadol and fentanyl, and 45 per cent also involved benzodiazepines like Valium.

“I think the problem that we have with these drugs at the moment is we’re using more and more of them,” says Dr Jennifer Stevens from Sydney’s St Vincent’s Private Hospital.

“30 or 40 years ago they used to be used primarily for cancer pain and it turns out that that was the right thing. We’ve moved to using them for all sorts of things we wouldn’t have dreamt of using them for before – so headaches, back pain…”

Jon Raggam became a paraplegic in 2012 after falling four metres and breaking his back. Two years later, aged 51, he’d been killed by a cocktail of medication legally prescribed by doctors.

“Jon died from mixed drug toxicity,” explains his sister Jasmin. “He was on Valium, he was on Endone, which is in the oxycodone family, he was also given an antidepressant for nerve pain.”

Jasmin wants to use Jon’s story to warn Australians about the dangers of prescription medication. She’s campaigning for more information about what families can do in the case of an overdose, which is to deliver the antidote, naloxone.

“Naloxone would have saved Jon’s life,” she explains. “It’s the golden key to an overdose.”

Families are also pushing for a national real-time prescription monitoring scheme to stop patients doctor-shopping – getting multiple prescriptions from different doctors.

All of Australia’s health ministers have now committed to a scheme which is due to be up and running by the end of this year.

Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt is also calling on GPs to review their prescription practice. He confirmed earlier this year that one country doctor handed out 68,000 opioid doses in less than a year, and a city doctor had handed out 56,000.

The Minister provided the following statement to The Project:

“Strong opioids can be deadly if they are misused and we need to take strong action to protect the community. That’s why we are taking steps to end the practice of doctor shopping through a national real time monitoring system. But this system can only truly be national if the states and territories input their information into the system because they monitor the use of these drugs. It is unacceptable that lives are lost through the misuse of prescription drugs in Australia and we call on all states to work with us and do it quickly. Recently at Minister Hunt’s request, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy wrote to over 4,000 of the highest opioid prescribing GPs asking them to review their practice. Opioids do play an important role treating palliative care patients, cancer sufferers and people who have experienced extreme trauma in things such as a car accident – but they must be very tightly controlled and monitored. As the United States opioid crisis shows, we must be aware to this and take strong action. The Minister is committed to working with all levels of government, key medical groups and the broader community to ensure we deal with this issue.”

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