Healthcare professionals must include carers in vital discussions on opioids to improve medication safety and identify potentially harmful use, warns national body
With opioid literacy an ongoing problem in Australia, Carers Australia is urging pharmacists to play a more active role in identifying carers of people relying on opioids for pain relief, and to include them in discussions about these medications at the time of dispensing.
This comes as part of the Department of Health’s ‘Safe and Effective Use of Prescription Opioids’ communication campaign.
The campaign follows the Australian Government’s regulatory reforms to ensure the appropriate use and prescribing of opioids, in response to rising rates of death and hospitalisation due to their use.
This incorporated a 2020 study by ORIMA Research, which found that 18% of current opioid consumers failed to recognise the term ‘opioids’, and only 53% were aware they were taking an opioid medication. The report went on to recommend increased education surrounding opioid use.
Even greater attention is required in instances where medication isn’t being dispensed directly to the patient, says Liz Callaghan, CEO of Carers Australia.
“We know there’s limited awareness and understanding of opioids across the board, and since the regulatory changes, many people now think they are becoming unavailable,” said Ms Callaghan.
“For the majority of people, this confusion has occurred despite having a direct relationship with their GP and pharmacist. Many people taking opioids may also have a carer supporting them to take their medicines, so it’s vitally important that carers are involved in conversations about opioids.”
The report found that patients tend to have worse opioid-related effectiveness and dependency outcomes when information provision is poor, leading to the recommendation that health professionals initiate conversations about the risks and benefits of opioids.
This includes highlighting the risk of dependence as a common side-effect, as well as supporting and encouraging non-opioid alternatives.
Providing relevant factsheets and Consumer Medicines Information (CMIs) was also encouraged, rather than relying on verbal explanations—particularly when a carer may be relaying and reinforcing information to the patient.
“Maintaining an open and ongoing dialogue is key in ensuring carers are educated on the risks involved in opioid use, as well as safe storage, administration and disposal of opioids, and that carers feel able to raise queries or concerns at any stage to assist the person they are caring for,” said Ms Callaghan.
Although there are an estimated 2.65 million carers in Australia making a critical contribution to the nation’s community and economy, Ms Callaghan was keen to highlight that carers aren’t always instantly identifiable.
Coming from all walks of life, cultural backgrounds and age groups, a carer is any individual who provides unpaid care and support to a family member or friend with a disability, mental illness, drug and/or alcohol dependency, chronic condition, terminal illness, or who are frail aged.
“Caring for someone who has high levels of pain can be difficult. Health professionals should be actively identifying if a patient has a carer, even if the carer does not identify themselves that way. More carer-inclusive practices will support a patient-centred approach, as well as linking the carer to services and supports that can assist them.”
Carers Australia is asking healthcare professionals to be proactive.
“Don’t assume the carer will ask you for information,” said Ms Callaghan. “Pharmacists are a trusted source of information, and there is often the expectation that this will automatically be provided if it is important. This includes having information available in a variety of formats to ensure language and cultural barriers – or other issues such as vision impairment or low literacy – are supported.”
Pharmacists can direct carers to the Carers Australia website, for information on caring for someone living with pain and taking opioids.
‘A report on communications developmental research relating to opioid regulatory reforms’ July 2020