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One in four adults prescribed addictive medicines, says PHE review

Over 11 million adults in England were prescribed addictive drugs between 2017 and 2018, according to a major new review by public health officials who said they recognised the 'great pressure' GPs are under to provide access to medication.

The Public Health England review, which looked at data for five commonly prescribed medicines - antidepressants, opioids, gabapentinoids, benzodiazepines and z-drugs - found that 26% of adults in England received a prescription for one or more of these drugs in the 12 months prior to March 2018.

GP leaders have said it is 'encouraging' the review shows a decline in opioid prescriptions for chronic pain, and also welcomed the report's call for more support services to help GPs and patients manage withdrawal in the community.

The PHE review said it was 'difficult to determine' the prevalence of dependence on, or withdrawal from, the medicines covered in the review.

However, it concluded the data on the duration of prescribing suggests that dependence and withdrawal are 'likely to be significant issues, particularly when seen together with the significant concerns raised by some patients, campaigners and others'.

The data showed that in March 2018, among all those people in receipt of a prescription, around half of patients for each medicine type were estimated to have been receiving a prescription continuously for at least 12 months.

While long-term prescribing may be clinically appropriate for some patients, the review stressed the importance of regular reviews to avoid people developing dependence or experiencing withdrawal.

'Patients may come to medical appointments with a clear expectation that medicines will meet their needs, and some will assertively make a case to receive a prescription. Increased awareness among the public and clinicians of treatments that are alternative, or supplementary, to medicines, and of the risks and benefits of medicines, is vital,' said the report.

The data analysed for the review also showed prescribing rates and the length of prescriptions were higher in more deprived areas of the country. 

PHE admitted that GPs in these regions were under ‘great pressure’ to prescribe drugs, and said alternative treatments needed to be considered.

Rosanna O’Connor, director of alcohol, drugs, tobacco and justice at PHE, said: ‘We know that GPs in some of the more deprived areas are under great pressure but, as this review highlights, more needs to be done to educate and support patients, as well as looking closely at prescribing practice and what alternative treatments are available locally.

‘While the scale and nature of opioid prescribing does not reflect the so-called crisis in North America, the NHS needs to take action now to protect patients.’

Commenting on today's findings, Dr Andrew Green, who represented the BMA during PHE's drug review, said: 'Doctors in the UK are of course concerned at the number of patients being prescribed these medicines, and the length of time they are taking them for.

'While there isn’t a single cause for high prescription rates, social deprivation, an increased prevalence of mental health problems and poor access to mental health care, a rise in the demand for GP services and a growing, aging population, are likely to be significant contributing factors.'

He added: 'It is positive that this report recognises that to reduce prescription levels, we need significant investment in support services; this will enable patients and GPs to manage dependencies together in the community. GPs will often be the sole clinicians who are managing a patient’s withdrawal, and there is a real need for better clinical guidance in this respect. We are glad that NICE is in the process of developing this.'

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the RCGP, said: ‘This report analyses prescribing data for medications that when prescribed appropriately can be effective and beneficial for many patients – and it shows that the vast majority of prescriptions issued are short term, and that we are seeing a decline in opioid prescriptions for chronic pain, both of which are encouraging trends.

‘What it also indicates is the severe lack of alternatives to drug therapies for many conditions – and where effective alternatives are known and exist, inadequate and unequal access to them across the country.'

GPs previously urged the Government to increase funding for pain services, as often a lack of specialist services often leaves them with no option but to prescribe addictive medication.

The review was announced in January in response to NHS Digital data which showed an increase in the number of patients prescribed an addictive medicine in the previous five years.

Key recommendations from PHE's review of addictive medications 

  • Doctors and commissioners should be given better access to data to improve prescribing behaviour;
  • Updates to clinical guidance for medicines which can cause problems with dependence and withdrawal – and the safe management of this;
  • Better information for patients about benefits and risks of medicines
  • More discussions between doctors and patients, and more alternatives offered including social prescribing;
  • A national helpline for patients and local support;
  • More research around dependence and withdrawal.

Readers' comments (30)

  • Vinci Ho

    (1) The reality of these patients who are heavily dependent on opiates(Co-codamol, Dihydrocodeine , Tramadol ( I called it CDT and etc ) and lately , gabapentinoids, are no different from those on methadone blue prescriptions . Even reducing the latter from 50 mls to 45 mls a day was confronted by strong objection from patients , for instance. And GPs have 10 minutes to complete this debate with a patient! Seriously?
    (2) The recommendations from PHE are sound but was quintessentially written in a bookworm fashion , ideological and intangible. Somebody needs to get real and mobilise resources to help the frontline.
    (3) Pain clinics need to take more responsibilities in monitoring the patient being initiated and maintained on all kinds of complex pain medications, rather than throwing them back to GPs to ‘continue’ .

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  • It is so easy to criticize for people who do not deal with patients face to face.
    Has PHE offered any workable realistic solution? As usual no. The recommendations are laughable. The next thing a GP gets if they follow the suggestions are a complaint for not caring and leaving the patient in pain.

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  • If you don't give out opioids, you can be subject to investigations by GMC, PAG, NHSE and the Ombudsman to name but a few. This crisis is was promoted by the medical regulators. I suspect extra NICE guidelines will only make this worse - breach them at your peril.

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  • David Banner

    Solicitors are already all over this like a cheap suit. Soon, patients (who badgered us for years to obtain ever more powerful analgesia) will be queuing up at their nearest “No Win, No Fee” outlet to blame ‘n’ claim their way to a few grand whilst trashing our reputations in the media. (“My prescription drugs hell”/ “My GP never bothered to review me” Panorama special coming to a TV near you soon).

    So now we have to drag them all in to non-existent appointments to document that they refuse any withdrawal attempt just to cover our massively exposed behinds. The benzo claims were merely an hors d’oeuvre, the coming codeine main course will be a bean feast.

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  • This year's qof requires we audit and take people off nsaids so with this, that leaves us with .. Paracetamol .. To offer. Easy for the pen pushers to say what we must not do .. What alternatives do they advise ?

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  • Refer them all to secondary care,see how they like that.

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  • Agree with all of above. I've tried this before including patient contract but it just takes time. We are already running at 11.5min/consultation (from BMA study good few years ago, so prob longer now). We can't then add extra 5min every time medication is prescribed.

    I'm happy to do this if government can fund 20min GP appointment. Over to you DoH

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  • Whystayagp?---Unfortunately the CCG says anything that can be bought OTC cannot be prescribed so we do not even have paracetamol! We should be assessed on what most doctors do and not these political or career boosting guidelines.

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  • GPs responsible for mortality and real fact people suffer sadly from numerous forms of chronic pain. Considering 6 months plus to pain clinic or 12 months to get OPA and almost no available talking therapies etc
    "I am in agonising chronic pain - want to talk about it? - I'd rather have some respite to function please"
    WHAT EXACTLY DO WE DO IN THE REAL WORLD? Can someone please answer from NHSE who actually works day to day seeing real patients in pain.

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  • Really angry that antidepressants are placed in the same category when they are not addictive and for recurrent severe depression patients need to be on them long term and there is no problem with that.

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