Last week, Minister for Health Greg Hunt made new medication safety announcements to ensure that Australia has a strong regulatory response to the rising risk of opioid related harm in our communities.
The Ministers announcement includes several regulatory responses that aim to tackle opioid related harm such as restrictions on opioid pack sizes, clearer and stronger boxed warnings and Consumer Medication Information (CMI) as well as restrictions on prescribing of high risk opioid products like Fentanyl.
The risk of opioid related harm is very real. Just this week, the Penington Insititute has released a new report, that highlights the seriousness of the situation we have at hand. Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2019 reveals that drug overdose continues to be a significant cause of death in Australia, with 2162 drug-induced deaths in 2017, the majority being unintentional. Concerningly, the number of unintentional drug-induced deaths involving opioids has more than trebled in the last 10 years.
It is arguable that much of the prescribing of opioids lies in pain management. This reliance on managing pain primarily through medication as a first line and often only line of treatment has led us down a very risky road. In 2016–17 there were 5,112 emergency department presentations and 9,636 hospitalisations due to opioid poisoning, with three deaths per day attributed to opioid harm, higher than the road toll.[i]We are still quite a way from the over 90 deaths a day that the now global opioid crisis claims in North America. But we do need to act, and we need to act in a way that recognises the complexity of the issue at the heart of this crisis - pain management.
While the regulations announced by the Minister and TGA are a step in the right direction to addressing the rising toll of opioid related harm in Australia, we need to acknowledge the very real impact on the the over 3.24 million people who live with chronic pain today, and who face limited options when it comes to best practice pain management. The ABC’s 7:30 report highlights the unintended, but major consequences, that blunt regulation can have on the lives of people living with pain.
Ignoring the urgent need for solutions is not an option. While the regulatory measures are one of the most effective tools we have to ensure that we tackle overprescribing of opioids, we do need to pull out all stops and go further. We must ensure that significant measures are taken to address the multitude of complexities involved.
The Ministers announcement of funding recently including the establishment of a National Advisory Council on Pain Management together with support for community awareness of pain and its management and health practitioner education, are important steps that need to be progressed to provide some balance and perspective in the approaches we take to this complex condition.
The National Strategic Action Plan for Pain Management is the result of months of consultation with Australia’s leading experts and consumers to identify the 50 key actions we could be taking now to prevent and manage chronic pain conditions so that we can stem the rising tide of opioid related harm while ensuring that we address the comprehensive needs of millions of Australians living with pain. We eagerly await the approval of Australia’s Health Minister’s to the Plan.
Meanwhile, there is no one size fits all pathway here. We must invest the time and effort to improve understanding and awareness of best practice pain management among both consumers and health professionals. This requires a long-term approach. It is also important that we invest in the range of treatments and services that can assist people to manage their pain condition. We should not expect this to be a quick and easy road.
Carol Bennett, CEO
[i] Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (2018). Australian overdose deaths are increasing – and the demographics are changing. News GP. Access online here.