The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is pleased to present this brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health for consideration as part of its study on the government's role in addressing prescription drug abuse in Canada.
It is increasingly recognized that while prescription medication has an important role in health care, the misuse and abuse of controlled psychoactive prescription medications, notably opioids such as oxycodone, fentanyl and hydromorphone, is emerging as a significant public health and safety issue. The use of prescription opioids is on the rise, in Canada and internationally. Canada has the second highest per capita consumption of prescription opioids in the world, after the United States. The CMA is particularly concerned about the impact of prescription drug abuse and misuse on vulnerable populations; notably, seniors, youth and First Nations. We note, for example, that in 2011 opioids were reported as the third most common drug (after alcohol and marijuana) used by students in Ontario.
Controlled prescription medications are legal products intended for legitimate therapeutic purposes, such as pain management or palliative and end-of-life care. However, they may also be used for recreational purposes or to feed an addiction. Though many patients are prescribed controlled drugs to treat medical conditions, it is addiction which drives the drugs' illegal acquisition through means such as doctor-shopping, forging prescribers' signatures, or buying from street dealers or the Internet.
Canada's physicians are concerned about the abuse and misuse of prescription medication for a number of reasons. For one, physicians need to assess the condition of patients who request the medication, and consider whether the use is clinically indicated and whether the benefits outweigh the risks. This can be challenging as there is no objective test for assessing pain, and therefore the prescription of opioids rests to a great extent on mutual trust between the physician and the patient. For another, physicians may need to prescribe treatment for patients who become addicted to the medications. Finally, they are vulnerable to patients who forge their signatures or use other illegal means to obtain prescriptions, or who present with fraudulent symptoms, or plead or threaten when denied the drugs they have requested.
Canada's physicians believe that the misuse and abuse of prescription medication is a serious problem and because of its complexity, requires a complex and multifaceted solution. Therefore, the CMA makes the following recommendations to the Committee:
1) A National Strategy to Address the Abuse and Misuse of Prescription Medication
The CMA recommends that the federal government work with provincial/territorial governments and other stakeholders to develop and implement a comprehensive national strategy to address the misuse and abuse of prescription medication in Canada.
The CMA has consistently recommended a comprehensive national strategy to address the problems of drug abuse in Canada, whether of illegal or prescription-based substances. The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, in its report First Do No Harm: Responding to Canada's Prescription Drug Crisis, has offered nearly 60 recommendations toward the development of a strategy to combat misuse of prescription medications. The CMA believes that such a strategy should include:
a) Prevention: Existing community programs and social marketing campaigns to address prescription drug abuse are generally aimed at young recreational users. For example, since many such users report that they get drugs from their parents' or friends' medicine cabinets, many jurisdictions have implemented prescription "take-back" programs, and education campaigns to promote safe storage and disposal of medications. Prevention strategies aimed at other types of prescription drug abuse, and targeting other populations such as health care providers, are still required.
b) Treatment: Appropriate services for the treatment of addiction to prescription drugs are also a vital part of a national strategy. The CMA recommends that all partners work to improve and promote access to treatment programs - not only for treatment of addiction, such as pharmacological interventions, support and counselling, and withdrawal management, but also to treat and manage pain. In particular, the CMA recommends improving access to culturally appropriate treatment, counselling and withdrawal management programs in rural and remote areas, and for First Nations.
c) Consumer Protection: There are several ways in which consumer protection strategies may form part of a strategy. One is modifications to the drugs themselves. For example, opioid manufacturers have developed formulations of their products intended to minimize their abuse potential, such as "slow-release" formulations and other forms of tamper-proofing to reduce a drug's potential for abuse. CMA supports further investigation into abuse-deterrent technologies.
d) Surveillance and Research: Our knowledge of the extent of the prescription drug abuse problem in Canada, and the effectiveness of strategies proposed to combat it, is limited by a number of factors. These will be more specifically addressed later in this brief.
2) Strategies to Enhance Optimal Prescribing in Canada
The CMA recommends that governments at all levels work with prescribers and the public, industry and other stakeholders to develop and implement a nationwide strategy to support optimal prescribing and medication use in Canada.
In an ideal world, all patients would be prescribed the medications that have the most beneficial effect on their condition while doing the least possible harm. The CMA acknowledges that we have not yet achieved that ideal, but believes that optimal prescribing in Canada is a goal worth achieving. Our 2010 position statement "A Prescription for Optimal Prescribing" (Appendix A) recommends a national strategy to promote best practices in prescribing, and its recommendations can be applied to the specific situation of prescription drug abuse. Key elements of this strategy are:
* Relevant, objective and easily accessible information for prescribers, which can readily be incorporated into every day practice. This can include clinical decision-support tools for use at the point of care.
* Ongoing development and dissemination of clinical guidance in pain management. A Canadian practice guideline for use of opioids to treat chronic non-cancer pain, prepared under the direction of the multi-stakeholder National Opioid Use Guideline Group (NOUGG), was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on June 15, 2010. A number of plans for dissemination of this guideline are under way, under the direction of the Michael G. DeGroote National Pain Centre at McMaster University. They include an online CME module, co-sponsored by the CMA, which is now being finalized by MDcme.ca, a professional education group based at Memorial University.
* Educational programs for prescribers in pain management and in the management of addictions. Both addiction treatment and pain management should be part of the educational curriculum in medical school and residency training as well as in continuing education. Educational programs could also provide prescribers with advice on how to recognize addiction in a patient, or on how to deal with fraudulent or aggressive patients.
* Ensuring that prescribers have access to expert advice if required. This could be achieved through such means as:
o Academic detailing programs, which use personalized one-on-one techniques to deliver impartial prescribing information to practitioners.
o Communities of practice and clinical support networks that link practitioners with experts in the field. Experts can not only provide clinical information, but can provide mentorship and personal advice on best practices.
3) Monitoring and Surveillance of Prescription Drug Abuse
The CMA recommends that all levels of government work with one another and health professional regulatory agencies to develop a pan-Canadian system of real-time prescription drug abuse monitoring and surveillance.
One of the challenges in dealing with prescription drug abuse is the incompleteness of our knowledge of the extent of the problem, or of the most effective ways to address it. This means that physicians do not have access in real time to the information they need, at the point of care. For example, except in Prince Edward Island, physicians do not have the ability to look up a patient's medical history to determine if he or she has received a prescription from another source.
Prescription monitoring programs exist in most provinces, but they vary in quality, in the nature of the information they require, and in the purpose for which data is collected. Some are administered by regulatory colleges, others by governments. The CMA recommends that national standards be developed for prescription monitoring programs, to ensure that all jurisdictions across Canada are collecting the same information in a standard way. Standardization of surveillance and monitoring systems can have a number of positive effects:
* It can help identify fraudulent attempts to obtain a prescription, such as an attempt to fill prescriptions from a number of different providers.
* It can help deter cross-provincial fraud.
* It can help professional regulatory bodies actively monitor and intervene, as needed, with practitioners suspected of over-prescribing or over-dispensing frequently-misused medications.
* Finally, it will help researchers gather consistent data to improve our knowledge of the problem, identify research priorities, and determine best practices to address crucial issues.
The CMA also recommends that this system be electronic and that it be compatible with electronic medical and pharmacy record systems, and with provincial pharmaceutical databases such as British Columbia's.
Provincial and territorial governments should work with the federal government and with health care providers to improve the standardization and sharing of information where appropriate. Prescription monitoring programs should be evaluated to ascertain their effectiveness in reducing misuse and abuse.
We are pleased that federal, provincial and territorial health ministries have expressed interest in working together on issues related to prescription drug abuse, and we hope that this will result in a coherent national system for monitoring and surveillance, and thus to improved knowledge about the nature of the problem and its most effective solutions.
In conclusion, the Canadian Medical Association reiterates the deep concern of Canada's physicians about prescription drug abuse and misuse in this country. We are committed to enhancing optimal prescribing and to working with governments to develop and implement a strong, coherent plan of action to address this pressing national problem.