A "silent epidemic" of prescription painkiller use across the nation will end only if doctors and patients make a cultural change, a Canberra toxicology expert has warned.
Calvary Hospital emergency medicines specialist David Caldicott said an increase in painkiller use among the over 50s was the likely cause of a 10 per cent increase in patients on the ACT's opiate treatment program last year.
He said better education for doctors and patients about painkillers' addictiveness - plus the legalisation of medical cannabis - would help the effort to wean people off opiates.
"One of the great threats to Australians from drugs, legal or illegal, is from prescription painkillers," Dr Caldicott said.
"As medical professionals we are prescribing it too frequently, and as patients we are pursuing these drugs and demanding them of our medical practitioners," he said.
"The opiates are well known for blunting the way you think, for creating a dependency, and addressing that dependency creates an anxiety."
There were 11,187 active clients of ACT Health's Opioid Treatment Service Program last financial year, 1100 more than in the year before.
The program allows doctors to prescribe three drugs, most commonly methadone, to help wean patients off an addictive regime and stop or minimise withdrawal symptoms.
Australian Medical Association ACT president Elizabeth Gallagher said it was important doctors were vigilant in their prescription habits, even more so with a growing trend away from patients having their own GP.
Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drug Association ACT executive officer Carrie Fowlie said Canberra led the nation in responding to opiate overdoses by allowing laypeople to distribute prescribed harm-minimisation drug naloxone in 2011, but doctors and patients needed to keep dangers in focus.
"Whenever [doctors] prescribe an opioid they should also be prescribing naloxone as core business," she said.
Pharmacy Guild of Australia ACT president Amanda Galbraith said the increase in both script and over-the-counter pain relievers in the last decade had allowed patients more freedom, including to exercise, but patients could overlook other options or stay on painkillers too long.
"We often try to talk to patients about not just relying on pain relievers, but to see their physiotherapist or osteopath or whatever physical method they like to treat their pain with as well," she said.
An ACT Health spokeswoman said the increase in opiate pain relief was "an issue across the country as well as internationally", but the government had no figures on what drove people to access their treatment program.
Closer scrutiny on prescriptions will be made easier when the new electronic lodging system for ACT pharmacies' reports of dispensed controlled medicines is updated from monthly to real-time reporting this year.