Australia still fails to treat drug and alcohol misuse as the health issues they are, says one expert
Dr Tamsin Short, executive director of Drug and Alcohol Services at Connect4Health, is preparing for the launch today – International Overdose Awareness Day – of a new program aimed at addressing pharmaceutical misuse.
Pharmacists will be able to refer patients to the program and Dr Short says there has already been interest shown by members of the profession.
The Medication Support and Recovery Service is a new specialist addiction service, funded by the Commonwealth Government through the East Melbourne Primary Health Network, to help people who have problems with their use of prescription or over-the-counter medications.
This includes opioid pain killers as well as other types of medications such as benzodiazepines and stimulants.
Dr Short says that to date, there has been plenty of work done from a law enforcement and social security angle, but not enough to actually help people with drug and alcohol problems seek help.
“I think we’re still struggling as a society to see this as a health issue that needs treatment, not punishment,” she says. “So hopefully having the Medication Support and Recovery Service will allow us to focus on helping people to get better.”
She says the punishment approach, such as that seen in the Government’s proposal to randomly drug test welfare recipients, does not work.
Pharmacists broadly agree with her: in our recent poll, 35% said they believe it’s a bad idea and will harm the people targeted, another 35% prefer a health approach and 24% said it won’t work.
“If drug and alcohol problems were as simple as saying to someone, ‘hey, stop doing it,’ I wouldn’t have a job!” Dr Short says.
“There seems to be a real misconception sometimes that it’s a simple fix, that it can just be switched off – it’s a bit analogous to saying to someone with depression, ‘just cheer up,’ or telling someone with an eating disorder to ‘just start eating’. It’s not that simple.
“What these approaches miss is the underlying reasons why somebody has developed an addiction. In the vast majority of cases, we see mental health problems, a history of trauma, pain, financial stress – a whole range of other issues.
“The addiction is the tip of the iceberg, the bit you see; but if you don’t address the underlying causes, you’re not going to get change.”
Dr Short says that initiatives such as the Government’s random testing approach also add stigma to the health issues.
“If you stigmatise people who are misusing alcohol, medications and other drugs it makes it harder for them to put their hand up and say, ‘I need help’,” she says.
She encouraged pharmacists in the east and north-east suburbs of Melbourne to talk to customers about whom they have concerns now, while the codeine upschedule and implementation of real-time monitoring in Victoria are still a few months away.
Pharmacists – as well as other health professionals and patients themselves – can refer their patients to the MSRS, and Dr Short encouraged them to do so.
“The earlier we can start having these conversations, the better – not only for the health of that patient, but also in terms of easing the burden on the system,” Dr Short says.
“Certainly we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen on 1 February next year or with real-time prescription monitoring, but we can probably expect pharmacists will see a lot of people, and GPs may be able to identify people they didn’t realise had a problem.
“We hope that establishing this program now will mean there’s already some clear and familiar referral pathways for pharmacists and GPs, and for patients to access support.”
The program is free and based in community health centres, and pharmacists can refer patients via its website or by speaking to an intake worker at 1800 931 101. Patients can also be encouraged to self-refer.
While it is only available to patients in the EMPHN, Dr Short also encouraged pharmacists across Australia to make the most of resources available to them about codeine and other drugs of concern, such as those produced by ScriptWise or NPS MedicineWise.
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