Exposing a prescribed killer

Deaths from prescription misuse is becoming an epidemic.

Last year in Victoria more people died from prescription overdose than in car accidents or from illicit drugs like heroin.

How is that possible you might say? These medications are highly regulated by laws and can only be obtained from a prescription written by a doctor and dispensed in a pharmacy by a pharmacist.

No one is to blame yet everyone is to blame… doctors, pharmacists, the government and consumers.

Misuse of these medications can be deliberate to gain euphoric effects or can be accidental due to a lack of education and understanding of what people are actually taking and what the effects, sometimes serious, can be.

Often these deaths occur not because of a single medication but by using medications combined and then throwing alcohol into the mix.

The medications most often implicated include oxycodone which is a strong pain killer that goes by the brand names Endone or OxyContin and benzodiazepines such as diazepam (Valium) which is used for sleep and anxiety.

Often people who have problems with these medications started using them for legitimate reasons.

They were prescribed OxyContin for their lower back pain but discovered that not only did it help relieve their pain but it also made dealing with the stresses of everyday living a lot easier to deal with, so they keep taking this medication even though their pain is better.

Unfortunately with a medication like oxycodone there is something called tolerance which occurs, this means you need to take more and more of the medication to get the same effect.

Before the person realises, they have developed a physical and often psychological dependence on the medication. This is when things get tricky, people get desperate to get what they believe they need so may resort to deceit and manipulation (often out of character ) to get it.

Doctors and pharmacists try and do the right thing by a distraught patient and continue supplying them with the medications, often making the problem worse.

The patient shops around to different doctors and pharmacies to get more of the medication as because of tolerance the old dose is no longer working and they become caught in a downward spiral of lies and manipulation.

So how do we solve this? The introduction of real-time prescription monitoring set to be released in Victoria in the next 12 months or so is a start. But we also need education.

We need education of our health professionals on safe and appropriate prescribing and management of these potentially dangerous medications and improved education of consumers about the risks of these medications.

We also need education on how to help a loved one or a patient who may have got into trouble and become dependent on these medications, and education on how to manage someone who has suffered an overdose.

There is a long way to go but it's a start. Come and join La Trobe and Scriptwise to discuss this matter further at a public forum on campus on Wednesday, May 24.

This article first appeared in The Bendigo Advertiser.

Photo: Gregor Fischer