Aussies ignorant on opioid addiction, but not pharmacists

A huge proportion of Australians believe negative stereotypes about people with opioid addictions, but pharmacists are, for the most part, a significant exception.

So says Bee Ismail, CEO of ScriptWise, which has released the results of a survey showing Australians lack awareness about opioid painkiller addiction and who it happens to.

On average around a third of people think that a person dependent on opioid painkillers is “their own worst enemy,” (38.1%)  “a junkie,” (36.6%) and that “they have weak willpower” (31.6%).

And 60% of men surveyed said that opioid dependent people are “undeserving of help” (40% of women believed the same).

Just over half the population remain unaware that it is possible to become addicted to painkillers including codeine, ibuprofen and paracetamol.

Australians also associate opioid painkiller addiction with certain types of people: when asked about the physical attributes of those addicted to opioid painkillers, words such as ‘fidgety’, ‘skinny’, ‘high anxiety’, and ‘unemployed’ were used.

Australians believe drug users are most at risk to becoming addicted to opioid painkillers (46.7%), while only around 20% believe that high earners (19.5%) or career-focused professionals (19.2%) could become dependent on opioid painkillers.

Ismail told the AJP that she was not surprised by the survey results, and that the stigma caused by these attitudes makes it more difficult for people who become addicted to legal opioids to come forward and seek help.

Yesterday Fairfax media reported on the story of Jessica Khachan, a 42-year-old mother of two who became addicted to codeine after minor surgery to remove her wisdom teeth.

Khachan had “no idea” that codeine was addictive. Within two years, she was taking 92 tablets every day and became severely ill.

“We’ve had a number of people approach us in the last 24 hours, saying they don’t know where to get help for themselves or their family member because there’s such a stigma about it,” Ismail says.

“If I’m being completely honest, it’s pharmacists who have been the health professional that people are actually more comfortable talking to about this.

“Pharmacists are generally more than happy to talk to patients about what to do next to seek help, probably because they’re the ones who see that end of it, when a person is trying to take advantage of the system.”

She says that she has heard many stories of people seeking help from GPs – for themselves or family members – but not being given adequate information about treating their addiction.

“I’m not saying GPs aren’t aware, but really it’s the pharmacists who actually want to do something about it,” Ismail says.

“They’re the perfect person to talk to about the pharmaceutical drug itself, and they’re more than happy to give the time of day, too.”

She says that ScriptWise will continue to work with pharmacy to produce resources for those seeking help, as well as information for pharmacists; in the meantime, more work needs to be done to support GPs to help their patients as well.

Ismail also praised the Pharmacy Guild and other pharmacy stakeholders for their work in developing MedsASSIST, and says she hopes for a real-time monitoring tool, accessible by GPs, for codeine-containing prescription drugs as well.

“It’s quite shocking to realise that in Australia, where we do have quite a decent health care system, there’s still no way we’re actually able to monitor what a patient’s medical history is,” she told the AJP.

“MedsASSIST has been an amazing tool and hopefully we can take it forward so that a GP can see, at the point of prescription, the patient’s history.”

She urges pharmacists to continue their good work with patients living with pain and addiction issues and says she hopes that the general attitude of Australian consumers will change over time.

“This is ultimately a health issue and a public health crisis – we need to change the way we speak around the issue, and treat it like the disease it is,” Ismail says. “All I can say to pharmacists is to continue to do what you do.”

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  1. Peter Crothers

    Naturally, none of us pharmacists are even slightly surprised by this. I wonder what non-pharmacy world thinks?

  2. Community education… and education… and more education. The community pharmacist is, in my opinion, in the best position, professionally and physically (accessibility), for disseminating accurate and reliable education. Plus support and relevant referrals when indicated.

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