Accidental prescribed-drug deaths skyrocket


QUEENSLANDERS are killing themselves by accident on pharmaceutical opioids at a greater rate than anyone else in the country.

And the overdose death toll is likely driven by fentanyl, the controversial painkiller that has brought America to its knees.

Shock new research released today shows that the number of deaths as a result of overdosing on doctor prescribed drugs has increased almost sixfold since 2009.

The state's top doctor said that many Queenslanders were self-medicating as they were doing it tough and suffering mentally from natural disasters such as drought, floods and fires.

The state's opioid deaths resulted from three drugs - fentanyl, pethidine and tramadol - but pethidine is rarely prescribed and tramadol is low potency.

"There is usually a cocktail of drugs and alcohol involved. These numbers are devastating but the Australian Medical Association Queensland is working hard to avoid following in the path of the US opioid crisis," AMAQ president Dr Dilip Dhupelia told The Courier-Mail.

In 2018, the Department of Health issued directives to the state's doctors warning them to tread carefully when prescribing opioid drugs.

On January 1 next year "real time" prescription monitoring will be rolled out to prevent doctor shopping.

"AMA Queensland is working closely with the government in introducing the system,'' Dr Dhupelia said.

"Doctors will be able to pull up on their computers prescription records which will flag dangers. If there is a problem the doctor has the chance to counsel the patient into alternative actions," he said.

"Also My Health Record is still in its infancy and as that matures we will have more history at hand," he said.

The research comes from the Penington Institute, a community based organisation involved in public health and safety approaches to drugs.

The Institute's chief John Ryan said we were in the middle of an overdose crisis.

"Queensland is unique among other states in that we are not seeing the growing divide in terms of the rate of unintentional overdose deaths between Brisbane and the rest of the state as we are between cities and regional areas in other states," he said.

In 2017, there were 130 unintentional drug deaths in Brisbane and 130 in Queensland regions.

"Fentanyl has genuine pharmaceutical uses but its also been implicated in thousands of deaths in North America. That it is beginning to show up in the data in Australia is very concerning," Mr Ryan said.

Fentanyl pain-relief patches are currently under review by the TGA.
Fentanyl pain-relief patches are currently under review by the TGA.

The TGA is currently reviewing fentanyl patches and doctors have been put on high alert in regards to the prescribing of the patches.

The AMAQ has also been pushing for an opioid weaning program for post surgery patients to try to reduce addiction numbers.

"Patients should be given only enough medication to last a couple of days and then be reassessed and monitored. They should not be given a full packet of strong opioids just in case they need them," Dr Dhupelia said.

Opioid addiction can lead to ice and heroine
Opioid addiction can lead to ice and heroine

Hospital pharmacists last year raised the alarm that more than 70 per cent of hospitals prescribe on the "just in case" basis.

Patients typically progress from painkiller opioids to ­illegal drugs like ice and ­heroin.

Dr Dhupelia (pictured right) said Queensland was also in the grips of a significant ice epidemic.

The new research shows that the number of people dying of all kinds of drugs in unintentional overdose in Queensland has gone up by more than 40 per cent since 2008.

Unintentional deaths involving stimulants increased ninefold from 2003 to 2007 in Queensland and in the same period the number of accidental deaths involving benzodiazepines increased fivefold with hundreds of people losing their lives.