Prescriptions for painkillers still rising in Canada despite opioid crisis

published on March 29, 2017 by Karen Howlett in The Globe and Mail

New figures show doctors continue to liberally authorize addictive painkillers, while therapies for treating dependency also rise

 Despite a national epidemic of opioid abuse and overdoses, prescriptions for painkillers – as well as therapies for treating dependency – have increased, new figures show.

Retail pharmacies across Canada dispensed 19 million prescriptions for opioids in 2016, up slightly from 18.9 million in 2015, according to estimates by health-data company QuintilesIMS. Prescriptions climbed six per cent over the past five years.

Overprescribing is behind the epidemic, which has worsened in recent years with the arrival of illicit fentanyl, leading to a sharp spike in overdose deaths. Canada ranks as the world’s second-biggest consumer of pharmaceutical opioids.

A Globe and Mail investigation found that Ottawa and the provinces have failed to take adequate steps to stop the indiscriminate prescribing of opioids. As doctors continue to liberally prescribe opioids, a class of painkillers that includes oxycodone, hydromorphone and fentanyl, both the pharmaceutical-grade and illicit markets are thriving. Meldon Kahan, medical director of the substance-use service program at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, said the numbers show that efforts to educate doctors about the risks associated with opioids have had little impact on prescribing.

 “If you create newly addicted patients through your intemperate opiate prescribing,” Dr. Kahan said, “many of those patients will eventually go to the street, especially as prices are declining and the patient needs higher and higher doses.”

The magnitude of the problem is reflected in the growing ranks of people treated for opioid abuse. The number of patients receiving the opioid therapies methadone and buprenorphine-naloxone soared 80 per cent in four provinces over the past five years, according to figures obtained by The Globe. Prescriptions for these therapies jumped 142 per cent, according to the figures tabulated for the first time.

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