Health chiefs ‘not adequately addressing’ deaths from prescription drugs

The former State Pathologist for Northern Ireland believes health officials are not “adequately” tackling the number of prescription drug deaths here after it was revealed that 123 people have died from painkillers and other drugs in the past two years.

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

Numbers obtained through the Sunday independent from the Coroner’s Office to record deaths between July 6, 2020 and July 2022, with codeine, tramadol, Pregabalin or benzodiazepines, either individually or in combination, have been mentioned in the cause of death.

The increased use of such drugs, which were mainly prescribed to relieve pain or anxiety, is “deeply concerning”, says Professor Crane.

“In Northern Ireland there are very many specific medicines prescribed for anxiety and depression – so much so that our per capita figures are much higher than the rest of the UK. We are well above the national average in prescribing these drugs.”

The pathologist said he has raised the issue with senior officials at the Department of Health, including the chief medical officer and chief pharmaceutical officer, but believes “little has changed”.

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

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

He said he felt addiction to painkillers “does not appear to be a priority” for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland.

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

“It’s a complex problem and clearly needs to be addressed with a multi-agency approach – because getting prescription drugs seems pretty easy.”

dr Alan Stout, chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, said the inclusion of pregabalin, used to treat epilepsy and anxiety, on the coroners’ list was “extremely worrying”.

Illegal drug deaths in Northern Ireland have more than doubled in the last 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 them within six weeks. Health chiefs ‘not adequately addressing’ deaths from prescription drugs

Fry Electronics Team

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