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Government medicine regulator launches major opioids review to cut prescribing

A major review of opioid medicines has been launched by the Government medicines regulator, with the aim of cutting overprescribing and drug misuse.

GPs and other medical specialists form part of the expert group commissioned by the MHRA to carry out the independent review of the scientific evidence relating to opioid medicines.

The group will look at the benefits and risks of opioids, recommend regulatory action to curb inappropriate use, and educate GPs and other clinicians on managing the risks.

This comes after Public Health England launched a review into prescription drug addiction – including opioids – last year, which is due to report this spring.

The MHRA said the new review is in line with but not part of the PHE review.

The review – which comes in response to growing concerns about overuse and misuse – will:

  • look at the current data on prescriptions of opioid-containing medicines in the UK, both prescribed and over the counter
  • consider the benefit/risk of opioid-containing medicines in particular for non-cancer indications, taking into account alternatives
  • make recommendations for regulatory action to better support appropriate use of prescription opioids

The expert group will also work to ‘raise awareness’ among both clinicians and the public on the risks of addiction and how these can be managed, it explained.

The announcement said: ‘The expert working group will undertake a comprehensive independent scientific review of all available evidence on the use of opioid medicines in the UK, drawing on best practice internationally, to make sure the information for patients and health professionals helps curb the over-prescription and misuse of these medicines.’

MHRA vigilance and risk management of medicines division director Dr June Raine said: ‘In response to the growing concern internationally and in the UK about overuse and increased prescribing of opioid analgesics, we are seeking expert advice on the benefits and risks of opioid medicines, including best practice for risk minimisation.’

Expert working group chair Professor Jamie Coleman said: ‘We have set out a clear programme of work to look at regulatory options. We have already planned some initial steps to work with stakeholders to produce consistent and clear label wording that opioid medicines may lead to addiction. We are also going to examine access to opioid medicines.’

But GPs are concerned they will be left without alternative treatments if the review restricts prescribing.

Newcastle GP Dr Phil Brookes, who specialised in drug and alcohol addiction before retiring, said: ‘In the last 20 years, the pain clinics have encouraged the increasing use of opioids in the community, they have started the prescriptions and encouraged GPs to continue them.

‘My main question would be, what are the other services that can be offered to these patients with non-cancer chronic pain? As a GP sitting in a surgery, you have got patients in front of you, in distress and pain, and you have drugs that will work in the short term and are licensed, and now if they say we are not supposed to use them, what do we do?

‘Will alternative services to provided? Otherwise GPs will be left high and dry with frustrated patients.’

BMA GP Committee clinical and prescribing lead Dr Andrew Green said: ‘There is no doubt that we have an epidemic of opioid use at the moment, and we need to take great care to ensure that we don’t find ourselves in a similar position to the United States, where prescribing is even higher.

‘If GPs are to reduce their prescribing, it is vital that alternatives to medication are provided for the management of patients with long-term pain, a condition for which we know opioids have little place.

‘PHE are currently conducting a review into prescription drugs associated with dependence or withdrawal syndromes, and it is strange that two bodies seem to be working separately on two very similar problems.’

PHE’s landmark review on prescription drug addiction and dependence was comissioned by the Government last January. It followed official data which found one patient in 11 (8.9%) had been prescribed an addictive medicine.

The review is looking at benzodiazepines, z-drugs, gabapentinoids, opioid pain medicines and antidepressants, and is due to report later this year.


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