Last year in Victoria, prescription drugs killed more people than car accidents.
Three hundred and ten Victorians died from prescription drug-related incidents, compared to the 242 individuals who lost their lives on the road.
This new research, released on Wednesday by the Coroner’s Court, has painted a worrying picture of the state of prescription drug use in Australia, with overdose, abuse and reliance more prevalent than ever.
Diazepam, the anxiety drug also known as Valium, was the biggest killer.
The problem is not just limited to Victoria, or Australia. On April 26, the US government will hold a National Prescription Drug Take-Back day to combat recent findings that prescription drugs kill more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined. For experts, these statistics don’t come as a shock.
“It’s not surprising,” says Dr Matthew Frei, clinical director at Turning Point drug and alcohol centre. “In Australia, you’ve got a very well-funded, well-resourced health system where medications are priced to be accessible to a broad range of people.”
Coupled with an ageing population, the informative power of the Internet and shorter-than-ever doctor consultations, it’s a dangerous mix. So how do you avoid becoming a statistic?
According to Paul Dillon, director of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA), prescription drugs come with a powerful misconception.
“Unfortunately there’s a belief in society that if you get a drug from a doctor it’s not harmful,” Mr Dillon says.
According to Mr Dillon, Australians have a tendency to over-trust their GPs and “put them on a pedestal,” preventing them from asking crucial, sometimes life-or-death, questions.
Often, the people who fall victim to reliance and abuse are not typical drug users. They’re elderly Australians on a cocktail of medications who lack the information to ask the right questions.
“The last few deaths I’ve had to deal with have been people who haven’t had contact with drugs in their past,” says Dr Frei. “They’re prescribed a drug, it gets out of hand, they start visiting a few different GPs and then they begin fibbing about their prescriptions.”
Unfortunately, the strange phenomenon of “doctor shopping” is also a common one.
“Some people have their own directory of medications and they will go to a doctor and read out the symptoms they should be getting,” Mr Dillon explains.
With consultations getting shorter and shorter, it can be harder for doctors to knock them back. Bulk billing also allows patients to see a number of different clinicians and stock up on variety of different drugs.
How to cope
Explore your options
“Make sure that a medication is the best treatment available,” says Dr Suzanne Nielsen, pharmacist and postdoctoral research fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at the University of New South Wales. Often, there may be simpler options for treating your condition, like exercise, weight loss, more sleep or things like acupuncture. Seek your doctor’s advice and be open to other options.
Clean out your medicine cabinet
Having old drugs lying around is dangerous if you have children in the home, but it also increases the risk that you will self-prescribe in desperate times, which has considerable risks.
Don’t share meds
According to Dr Nielsen, “much of the research in Australia and overseas shows that particularly pain medication comes from friends, family and informal sources.” It’s important to be aware that medications are prescribed specifically for certain people and situations. What may work for you may not work for someone else.
Avoid alcohol and driving
Although it varies, most prescription pills cannot be used in conjunction with alcohol. While completing your script, it’s best to steer clear of alcohol until you have finished the course.
Medication side effects may also increase your risk of having an accident while behind the wheel due to drowsiness or disorientation. Read up and know your limitations.
Don’t mix medications
Mixing different varieties of prescription meds can be extremely dangerous. When visiting your GP, be upfront about the range of medications you’re taking and don’t assume that they already know.
Ask the right questions
Every patient should feel comfortable questioning their GP. Often, appointments can feel rushed, but it pays to take the time to get educated. Alternatively, you can ask your pharmacist for advice. Some helpful questions include:
• How long should I be taking this medication for?
• What else should I be doing for my condition?
• Can I drink alcohol on this medication? Can I drive?
• What are the side effects of this medication?
• Will this interfere with any other medications I’m taking?
Use as directed
Prescriptions are there for a reason – they dictate the frequency and period of time you should be consuming the drug. Most medications are intended for short-term use only.
“If you don’t get repeats this means it’s a medication you cant keep using,” says Mr Dillon. “Additionally, if you’re not getting the impact don’t double your dose.”