Expanding medical treatment options for opioid addiction

published on March 2, 2018 by Cheyenne Johnson, MPH, and Emily Wagner, MSc in heretohelp

Every day in Canada, 16 people are hospitalized as a result of an overdose. Seven people in the country will die. That’s every single day. More than 3,000 deaths due to overdose are anticipated in Canada in 2017 alone.

Here in British Columbia, the staggering increase in the number of overdoses led to the province declaring a public health emergency in the spring of 2016. Despite the efforts of first responders, health care providers and peer groups working tirelessly to respond to overdoses when they happen, fatal overdoses continue in the province at an unfathomable rate. More than 1,000 people have died in the year and a half since the public health emergency was declared.

The introduction of fentanyl and other powerful opioids into the drug supply has been a major contributing factor to the overdose emergency. The death toll also exposes a reality that addiction medicine specialists, families affected by addiction and people who use drugs have known for some time: the system of care for substance use is ill-equipped to properly identify, treat and care for those with problematic substance use.

Opioid addiction is a major driver of the recent surge in overdose deaths in the province. It’s also one of the most challenging forms of addiction facing the health care system in BC. Addiction may involve the use of illicitly manufactured opioids, such as heroin or street fentanyl, or prescription opioid medications obtained illicitly. We don’t have current estimates for opioid addiction rates among Canadians, but opioid addiction affects approximately 2.1% of Americans.1

Earlier this year, the team at the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) released guidelines to support physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, allied health professionals and other care providers involved in the treatment of individuals with opioid addiction. The new guidelines address both the lack of awareness among care providers and the under-utilization of alternative treatment options. Developed in consultation with key health systems partners, community and family advocacy groups and international experts, the guidelines reflect the best available evidence and are informed by the lived experiences of people who use drugs and the families of people who use drugs. They also make recommendations for best treatment.

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