Health professionals mobilising to combat opioid misuse

By Myles Peterson

Prescription drug misuse has emerged as one of the leading killers of men in the region aged 40 to 49.

The data was highlighted yesterday by Primary Care Connect’s regional pharmacotherapy network co-ordinator Tim Griffiths as part of Medication Dependence Prevention Month.

One class of drugs, pharmaceutical opioids, is proving exceptionally dangerous, with reported misuse rising rapidly, Mr Griffiths said.

Pharmaceutical opioids include painkillers such oxycodone, morphine, codeine, pethidine, tramadol and the extremely potent fentanyl.

Heroin is one of the best known and widest used illicit opioids.

Between 2008 and 2014, the number of pharmaceutical opioid deaths in Australia rose by a 148 per cent.

A feature of fatal pharmaceutical opioid overdoses was poly-drug use, where more than one substance is found in a deceased’s system.

‘‘Frequently we are seeing a combination of opioids and alcohol,’’ Mr Griffiths said.

Many pharmaceutical addicts start via legitimate exposure to painkillers, such as a painful injury or chronic disease, according to Mr Griffiths.

But a blackmarket for pharmaceutical opioids has also risen rapidly with some dealers ‘‘doctor shopping’’ for scripts with the intention of selling the drugs on the street.

In response to the rising health issue, the Hume Area Pharmacotherapy Network has teamed up with St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne to target health professions and increase awareness and training in the area of pharmaceutical opioid dependence.

Known as Project ECHO, the initiative is being rolled out across the region.

‘‘We started Project ECHO because although it’s urgently needed, people in regional and rural areas often can’t access treatment for opioid dependence,’’ Mr Griffiths said.

‘‘Out in these areas, we only have access to a limited number of addiction medicine specialists, even though the number of people affected continues to grow.’’

Describing the initiative as first of its kind, Mr Griffiths said health professionals were able to video conference weekly with specialists at St Vincent’s.

‘‘ECHO is a way of bringing specialist knowledge and support about opioid management to health professionals across Victoria who might not have worked in the area, or want to improve their skills,’’ he said.

‘‘We cover a range of topics from opioids and addiction in chronic pain management to more specific topics around the use of medication-assisted treatment of opioid dependence.’’

General practitioners, nurses, pharmacists and other health professionals interested in the program can register at