National response to prescription drug abuse epidemic a matter of urgency
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National response to prescription drug abuse epidemic a matter of urgency

In the three years before his death on January 6, 2010, 21-year-old Paul Fennessy had obtained, and filled, more than 150 prescriptions for opioids, antidepressants and antipsychotics.

A post mortem revealed not a single one of the seven drugs present in his body was illegal.

Paul, like many of the hundreds of Australians who die from overdosing on prescription opioids each year, was a skilled doctor shopper.

His suppliers were the 18 different GPs and chemists he used to obtain and then fill the prescriptions he needed to feed his addiction.

None of these unwitting participants in Paul's downward spiral was apparently aware of what was going on.

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The ACT, the jurisdiction in which he lived and died, did not have a central register or database that medical practitioners and pharmacists could access to check his past prescription history.

Opioid prescriptions were logged, with the data updated once a month, but it could only be accessed by the ACT Government.

Tasmania is currently the only place in Australia which has a fully operational system that offers doctors and pharmacists real-time prescription history access from their desks or counters while the patient is present.

Since it was launched in 2012 DORA, it's short for Drugs and Poisons Information System Online Remote Access, has been credited with saving dozens of lives in a jurisdiction only 25 per cent more populous than the ACT.

Tasmanian deaths from prescription drug overdoses have fallen from an average of 25 to 17 a year. Doctors, pharmacists and health officials are "red flagging" about 40 suspect incidents a day.

The Victorian Government, partly in response to a campaign led by Margaret Millington, a mother from the state's west who lost her son, Simon, to a prescription drug overdose also in 2010, voted $30 million for mandatory prescription monitoring for high risk drugs in 2017.

It is understood the Victorian scheme will be backed up with the allocation of additional resources to supporting addicts once they have been identified.

Experience in the US, where the abuse of prescription painkillers is an epidemic that has killed more than 183,000 people since the turn of the century, shows preventing the script from being written is not enough on its own.

Unless addicts are helped to end their dependency there is a serious risk they will just turn to even more dangerous, and easy to obtain, illicit opioids such as heroin.

Mrs Millington's hope, which is shared by Paul Fennessy's mother, Ann Finlay, is for a national mandatory real time prescription monitoring scheme.

While this would be a challenge given interstate rivalries and all of the complexities federalism brings, it should not be put into the too-hard basket.

With the ACT now promising to set up a real time monitoring scheme of its own, three jurisdictions have already got on board. Surely, given the endemic nature of this crisis and its proven ability to explode into a national catastrophe, a single service makes far more sense than three, five, or even six, separate silos of information that can only be accessed in the home jurisdiction.

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