Health chiefs ‘not adequately addressing’ prescription drug deaths

The former Northern Ireland state pathologist believes health authorities are not ‘adequately’ dealing with the number of deaths caused by prescription drugs here, after it emerged that 123 people died over the course of for the past two years due to painkillers and other medications.

Professor Jack Crane said he was “concerned that Northern Ireland has a disproportionate number of deaths from prescription drugs” compared to the rest of the UK.

Figures obtained by the Sunday Independent from the coroner’s office register deaths between July 6, 2020 and July 2022 where codeine, tramadol, Pregabalin or benzodiazepines, either separately or in combination, have been mentioned in the cause of death.

The increased use of these drugs, which have primarily been prescribed to relieve pain or anxiety, is “deeply concerning”, Prof Crane says.

“There is a very high level of prescription of particular drugs for anxiety and depression in Northern Ireland – so much so that our numbers are much higher per head of population than the rest of the UK. We are well above the national average for the prescription of these drugs.

The pathologist said he had raised the matter with senior Ministry of Health officials, including the chief medical officer and the pharmaceutical director, but believes “little has changed”.

Professor Crane said there were patients on long waiting lists for surgery, who suffered from chronic pain from conditions such as arthritis or hip problems, and had no no choice but to receive pain relief.

“That seems to be a factor – that patients are taking these drugs for a long time because they’re waiting for surgery.”

He said he was of the view that addiction to painkillers “does not appear to be a priority” for Northern Ireland’s Department of Health.

“I know a lot of volunteer groups are trying to do something about it, but there doesn’t seem to be a real strategy to deal with it and deal with it. I think the Department of Health should really look into this.

“It’s a complex issue and it’s clearly something that needs to be tackled with a multi-agency approach – as it seems to be quite easy to get prescription drugs.”

Dr Alan Stout, chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, said the coroners’ listing of pregabalin, which is used to treat epilepsy and anxiety, is ‘very worrying’ .

Deaths from illicit drugs in Northern Ireland have more than doubled over the past 10 years. In 2020, 218 people died from drug abuse.

So far in 2022, a total of 34 people have lost their lives in Belfast, 15 of whom have died in six weeks.

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