Doctors struggling to cope with growing number of overdose patients with brain damage

published on December 30, 2016 by Clare Hennig in CBC News

As the number of drug overdoses continues to rise in B.C., doctors are struggling to cope with the increasing number of patients facing irreversible brain damage and other long-term health issues.

Since January, more than 6,000 patients have ended up in Vancouver-area emergency departments because of drug overdoses.

The majority of patients are released after a few hours but about nine per cent are admitted to hospital for longer term care.

Outside the ICU

Dr. Keith Ahamad, an addiction physician at St. Paul’s Hospital who also works in one of the mobile medical units in Vancouver, said it is not just those in intensive care who face long term health consequences from overdosing.

“What we’re seeing in the ICU at St. Paul’s is people who have major brain damage but there will be people who will have some damage and not be evaluated,” Dr. Ahamad said.

“I see so many people in my addiction clinic that have cognitive impairment from multiple overdoses.”

Overdose deaths gets more attention, Dr. Ahamad said, because it is such a visible, extreme consequence of addiction but it is not the only one.

“What we need to start talking about too is that, with untreated addiction, there are so many other consequences like long term health issues,” he said.

Dr. Annabel Mead, addiction physician and director of an addiction fellowship program at St. Paul’s, said that even when someone seemingly recovers from an overdose there may still be lingering medical effects.

“Someone can recover from their overdose but they may have long-term cognitive deficiencies such as poor short-term memory and poor cognitive functioning,” Mead said.

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