In January 2018, the Government gave Public Health England the task of conducting a large-scale review into the UK’s addiction to and dependence on prescription drugs.
The decision came after Department of Health and Social Care data revealed that 8.9% of the UK’s patients have been prescribed an addictive legal medicine - a rise of 4% over the previous five years.
PHE was given a year to conduct the review: its remit included establishing the scale of the problem, understanding why prescriptions of addictive medicines are on the rise, and providing recommendations to the Health Service. The final report was set to be published “by early 2019”.
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As of mid-May, the report is nowhere to be seen, and PHE had failed to provide an update on its likely publication date. With prescription drug addiction such a widespread problem, we wonder where the results of that report are…
Cansford Labs co-founder John Wicks believes part of the problem is that the issue goes back far longer than five years. He remembers a time when he was at university, and visited the university medical centre.
“I was panicking about exams or something”, he says, “and the doctor’s instant response was to prescribe Valium, which I didn’t need”. He believes that there are many people of his age hooked on benzodiazepines that were prescribed by their GP many years ago, the dosage of which was never tapered off.
“It’s been an issue for twenty or thirty years”, says John. “Doctors prescribe these addictive medications because the patient is convinced they need it, and kick up a fuss if it isn’t given to them.”
It may be that a patient is prescribed oxycodone to relieve the pain from a broken limb, for example. After the limb heals, something else may cause them discomfort and they continue to take the drug, knowing that it makes them feel better. However, when the doctor stops prescribing the medication, some of these people may turn to other sources to feed their increasing addiction.
Opioids are also a huge issue in the United States, with the country’s opioid crisis killing thousands of people every year. While there are undoubtedly cases where such drugs are necessary, the risk of addiction should be considered seriously before doctors prescribe, and before patients begin to take them.
John questions whether these addictive drugs are really doing patients any good in the long term, whether they are affecting patient health in other ways, and whether they may be having problems at work or in their personal lives as a result.
Shining a light on the issue, as the government did when requesting the PHE review, is certainly a step in the right direction. But without publishing the findings and putting measures into place to resolve the problem - as the US has done by enabling the conviction of the drugmakers responsible - this decades-old problem will continue.
“In order to make a real difference,” says John, “the government would need to put some serious money towards the issue, opening treatment centres to help people with their addictions. In my view, this is unlikely to happen”.