Opioids: A national crisis needs a federal response

published on April 11, 2016 in The Globe and Mail

Pauline Voon is a Registered Nurse and research associate at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, and doctoral student in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.

On March 7, Health Minister Jane Philpott received a letter from U.S. senators urging Canada to join forces in combatting prescription drug abuse.

Four days later, a bipartisan bill supporting a national drug-addiction program sprinted through the U.S. Senate with a 94-1 vote, in an unprecedented display of unity that has rarely been seen between Republicans and Democrats in recent years.

On March 15, the U.S. Center for Disease Control released a national Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. Then, on March 18, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services unveiled a National Pain Strategy, the first federally co-ordinated plan to address chronic pain in America.

These major recent developments bring us to the question: When will Canada step up to the plate to address prescription-drug use, opioid addiction and chronic pain?

One in five Canadians suffer from chronic pain, which is more than the number with diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. As a result, pain is one of the most common reasons for seeking medical care, resulting in a huge burden on our health system.

At the same time, there is now a general consensus that opioid medications – once considered the gold-standard treatment for pain – pose high risk for harms such as overdose and addiction, which outweigh their potential benefits. Now, due to overprescribing of opioid medications over the past decade and a half, we are seeing these exact consequences throughout Canada – to the extent that in several Canadian settings, more people are dying from opioid overdoses than from motor-vehicle accidents involving alcohol.

View the full article