Authorizing Cannabis for Medical Purposes
The legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes came into effect with the Cannabis Act in October 2018, and patients continue to have access to cannabis for therapeutic purposes. The Cannabis Regulations have replaced the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations. Patients can obtain cannabis for medical purposes when a physician or nurse practitioner provides a “medical document” , authorizing its use, and determining the daily dried cannabis dose in grams.
With the authorization, patients have the choice whether to (a) buy directly from a federally licensed producer; (b) register with Health Canada to produce a limited amount for personal consumption; (c) designate someone to produce it for them; or (d) buy cannabis at provincial or territorial authorized retail outlets or online sales platforms, if above the legal age limit.
While acknowledging the unique requirements of patients suffering from a terminal illness or chronic disease for which conventional therapies have not been effective and for whom cannabis may provide relief, physicians remain concerned about the serious lack of clinical research, guidance and regulatory oversight for cannabis as a medical treatment. There is insufficient clinical information on safety and efficacy for most therapeutic claims. There is little information around therapeutic and toxic dosages and knowledge on interactions with medications. Besides the need for appropriate research, health practitioners would benefit from unbiased, accredited educational modules and decision support tools based on the best available evidence.
The Canadian Medical Association has consistently expressed concern with the role of gatekeeper that physicians have been asked to take as a result of court decisions. Physicians should not feel obligated to authorize cannabis for medical purposes.
Physicians who choose to authorize cannabis for their patients must comply with their provincial or territorial regulatory College's relevant guideline or policy. They should also be familiar with regulations and guidance, particularly:
Health Canada’s Information for Health Care Practitioners – Medical Use of Cannabis (monograph, summary and daily dose fact sheet),
the Canadian Medical Protective Association’s guidance;
the College of Family Physicians of Canada’s preliminary guidance Authorizing Dried Cannabis for Chronic Pain or Anxiety; and
the Simplified guideline for prescribing medical cannabinoids in primary care, published in the Canadian Family Physician.
The CMA recommends that physicians should:
Ensure that there is no conflict of interest, such as direct or indirect economic interest in a licensed cannabis producer or be involved in dispensing cannabis;
Treat the authorization as an insured service, similar to a prescription, and not charge patients or the licensed producer for this service;
Until such time as there is compelling evidence of its efficacy and safety for specific indications, consider authorizing cannabis only after conventional therapies are proven ineffective in treating patients’ conditions;
Have the necessary clinical knowledge to authorize cannabis for medical purposes;
Only authorize in the context of an established patient-physician relationship;
Assess the patient’s medical history, conduct a physical examination and assess for the risk of addiction and diversion, using available clinical support tools and tests;
Engage in a consent discussion with patients which includes information about the known benefits and adverse health effects of cannabis in its various forms (e.g., edibles), including the risk of impairment to activities such as driving and work;
Advise the patient regarding harm reduction strategies and the prevention of accidental exposure for children and other people;
Document all consent discussions in patients' medical records;
Reassess the patient on a regular basis for its effectiveness to address the medical condition for which cannabis was authorized, as well as for addiction and diversion, to support maintenance, adjustment or discontinuation of treatment; and
Record the authorization of cannabis for medical purposes similar to when prescribing a controlled medication.
The Cannabis Regulations provide some consistency with many established provincial and territorial prescription monitoring programs for controlled substances. Licensed producers of cannabis for medical purposes are required to provide information to provincial and territorial medical licensing bodies upon request, including healthcare practitioner information, daily quantity of dried cannabis supported, period of use, date of document and basic patient information. The Minister of Health can also report physicians to their College should there be reasonable grounds that there has been a contravention of the Narcotic Control Regulations or the Cannabis Regulations.
Approved by CMA Board February 2015
Latest update approved by CMA Board in February 2020
Bill C-2 An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (Respect for Communities Act)
Canadian Medical Association Submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs
On behalf of its more than 82,000 members and the Canadian public, CMA performs a wide variety of functions. Key functions include advocating for health promotion and disease prevention policies and strategies, advocating for access to quality health care, facilitating change within the medical profession, and providing leadership and guidance to physicians to help them influence, manage and adapt to changes in health care delivery.
The CMA is a voluntary professional organization representing the majority of Canada's physicians and comprising 12 provincial and territorial divisions and 51 national medical organizations.
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) provides this brief for consideration as part of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs study of Bill C-2, An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (Respect for Communities Act).1
Bill C-2 (formerly Bill C-65) is subsequent to the 2011 unanimous ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada2 that recognized the significant evidence on the benefits of Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection site. The Supreme Court ordered that the federal government grant the exemption for medical and scientific purposes to Insite.
The ruling left decisions regarding future applications for exemptions to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) for Insite and other potential supervised injection sites up to the discretion of the Minister of Health, with the provision that the Minister seek to strike the appropriate balance between the public health and public safety goals, and suggests the decision be based on five elements: "evidence, if any, on the impact of such a facility on crime rates, the local conditions indicating a need for such a supervised injection site, the regulatory structure in place to support the facility, the resources available to support its maintenance and expressions of community support or opposition." 3
In response, the Minister of Health proposed Bill C-2, which amends the CDSA to include section 56.1, and provides a federal regulatory framework for supervised consumption sites.*
CMA is deeply concerned with the proposed legislation, as it has the potential to create unnecessary obstacles and burdens that would ultimately deter the creation of new supervised consumption sites, even in municipalities where the need and cost-effectiveness has been well researched and the health and safety benefits clearly established. Moreover, it does not strike the appropriate balance between public health and public safety, as is the spirit and intent of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling on Insite. This will make the renewal of exemptions for Insite, the very facility which the Supreme Court ruled "saves lives", very difficult.
Public health approach to addiction
Addiction should be recognized and treated as a serious, chronic and relapsing medical condition for which there are effective treatments. The CMA has long called for a comprehensive national drug strategy that addresses addiction, and includes prevention, treatment, harm reduction and enforcement components.
Public health objectives in addressing addictions will vary depending upon the circumstances: preventing drug use in those who have not initiated use (e.g. pre-teens); avoiding use in circumstances associated with a risk of adverse outcomes (e.g. drug use and driving motor vehicle); assisting those who wish to stop using drugs (e.g. treatment, rehabilitation); and assisting those who continue to use drugs to do so in such a manner as to reduce the risk of adverse effects (e.g. needle distribution program).
Despite drug use being primarily a health and social issue, the focus of the federal National Anti-Drug Strategy is heavily skewed towards a criminal justice approach, as evidenced by a recent evaluation.4 This approach does not address the determinants of drug use, treat addictions, or reduce the harms associated with drug use. Other models are more effective in achieving the desired objectives and more investments need to be made in prevention, harm reduction and treatment, keeping individuals out of the criminal justice system.5
Drug use is a complex issue, and collaboration among health and public safety professionals, and society at large, is essential.
Harm reduction is part of health practice
Harm reduction is not restricted to services for people who use drugs; it is an approach that is adopted routinely in every health and social program. For example, seat belts, air bags and helmets are encouraged and even mandated to reduce some of the possible harmful consequences of driving or cycling - regardless of who is at fault. Many medications do not cure diseases, and are essential to prevent complications. An example is the use of insulin by people with diabetes.6 There are many programs created to reduce the harms created by alcohol, a legal substance that contributes to a significant burden of disease, disability and deaths. Examples include low risk drinking guidelines, designated driver or alternate driver programs for drinkers, graduated licenses and changes in the hours of liquor stores to reduce the use of non-beverage alcohol.7 While the risk is still present, this approach reduces harms.
Harm reduction related to psychoactive substances, "refers to policies, programmes and practices that aim primarily to reduce the adverse health, social and economic consequences of the use of legal and illegal psychoactive drugs without necessarily reducing drug consumption. Harm reduction benefits people who use drugs, their families and the community".8 They are part of a comprehensive approach which also includes abstinence-based programs.
The CMA fully supports harm reduction strategies as they aim to reduce mortality and morbidity even in the face of continued exposure to a potentially harmful substance. Addiction is an illness, and harm reduction is a clinically mandated and ethical method of care and treatment. Physicians must treat patients as a matter of good medical practice and ethical obligation, whether the patient is believed to contribute to his or her injury or not. Section 31 of CMA's Code of Ethics provides that all physicians must "recognize the responsibility of physicians to promote fair access to health care resources".9
Harm reduction information, services and interventions are respectful and non-judgmental, and have the purpose of promoting health and safety. These strategies were developed in response to critical situations and high costs to the health, social and criminal justice systems. Harm reduction approaches are evidence-based, cost effective and have a high impact on individual and community health. Such programs for injection drug users are now well established within every province and territory in Canada, in the form of needle and syringe distribution programs, methadone maintenance and the provision of sterilized equipment.10
Supervised Consumption Sites are evidence-based
Supervised consumption sites, within a comprehensive drug strategy, are another example of a harm reduction program. They were developed to reduce the harms of Injection drug use, which are an increased incidence and prevalence of infectious diseases including HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, and skin- and blood-borne infections; frequent drug overdoses resulting in significant morbidity and mortality; and increased hospital and emergency service utilization. Many of these health problems are not due to the drugs themselves, but to the injection method and equipment.
Supervised consumption sites are "specialized facilities that provide injection drug users with a clean, safe, unhurried environment. Sterile injection equipment is provided and health care and social service professionals are available to deal with health issues, provide counselling, and facilitate access to detoxification and treatment programs. Supervision is provided by health professionals trained in low-risk injection techniques and overdose intervention."11 The drugs are acquired elsewhere, and they are located in areas of concentrated and highly visible drug scenes. Such services have existed for many years in many countries, and there are over 90 sites operating in countries such as Australia, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Switzerland.12
Clients of these sites have complex histories of trauma, mental illness and drug use, and live at the margins of society, unreached by traditional health and social services. Supervised consumption sites are developed as low threshold services for hard-to-reach populations which are experiencing unacceptable levels of deaths and diseases. Existing outreach and treatment programs are insufficient to meet the needs of this population, and these sites are a point of entry into health and social services.
Insite, the first supervised injection site in North America, operates in Vancouver's downtown east side as part of the 'four pillars' drug strategy: prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and enforcement.13 14 In 2012, Insite had an average of 1028 visits per day. There were 497 overdose incidents with no fatalities and 3418 clinical treatment interventions. Insite staff made 4564 referrals for further health care, housing and social supports, and the vast majority was for detox and addiction treatment.15
Insite has been one of the most researched public health interventions to date.16 Research was conducted by the BC Centre for Excellence on HIV/AIDS, funded partially by Health Canada, and there are over 30 publications in leading peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals.17 18The evidence shows that there has been:
* A reduction in the overall rate of needle sharing in the area;19
* A reduction in deaths due to overdose in the area, with no overdose deaths in the facility;20 21
* Increased access to addiction counseling and increased enrolment in detox programs;22 23
* Opportunities for HIV prevention through education, and increased links between patients and HIV treatment and services;24
* Improvements in measures of public order including reduced public drug injections and publicly discarded syringes;25 and
* No increase in levels of drug dealing or other drug related crime in the area in which the facility is located. 26
* Cost savings to health and social systems, reducing risks of infectious diseases, intervening early when there are issues, and reducing the need for emergency care.27 28
Reports from other countries show similar results.29 30 However, "research evidence, even if it meets rigorous academic standards, might be insufficient to sway opinions among those who hold a firm view of addiction as a moral failure."31 Assertions that supervised consumption sites will not reduce disease transmission, exacerbate crime, encourage drug use, have destructive effects on local businesses and residents are not based on evidence.
Physicians believe that medical decisions must be based on evidence, not ideology or public opinion, and the evidence shows that supervised injection reduces the spread of infectious diseases, decreases the incidence of overdose and death and increases access to much needed services, without increasing problems with public safety.
Significantly, the Court accepted the evidence that "Insite has saved lives and improved health without increasing the incidence of drug use and crime in the surrounding area."32 It also stated that Insite is supported by the Vancouver police, the city and provincial governments. Supervised consumption rooms aim to address problems of specific, high-risk populations of people who use drugs, particularly those who consume in public and other high risk situations. They seek to meet the needs of those who use drugs, but also of the communities that are struggling with a crisis situation.
The CMA has the following concerns with Bill C-2:
1. Bill C-2 does not strike a balance between the public health and public safety goals of the CDSA. As written, Bill C-2 disregards the strong evidence of important positive impacts on public health and public safety and giving undue emphasis on public opinion, which might not be fully informed or experienced. Although public opinion might initially be against the introduction of such facilities, public acceptance of supervised consumption sites is considerably high in most of the locations where they have been established, in both Vancouver sites (Insite and the Dr Peter Centre) and in European countries. "Health problems have been reduced, and law and order have been improved. Communities, neighbourhoods and local authorities are usually involved in the good functioning of the facilities through cooperation and communication."33 The Supreme Court states that there has been "no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada during its [Insite's] eight years of operation."
2. Bill C-2 contradicts the spirit and intent of the unanimous decision of the 2011 Supreme Court of Canada regarding Insite which states that "the potential denial of health services and the correlative increase in the risk of death and disease to injection drug users outweigh any benefit that might be derived from maintaining an absolute prohibition on possession of illegal drugs".34 Bill C-2 does not acknowledge the extensive evidence that exists regarding supervised consumption sites both internationally and in Canada, as discussed previously. Passing Bill C-2 in its current form could potentially prevent the renewal of the exemption to Section 56 of the CDSA for Insite. A likely consequence will be further costly litigation.
3. Bill C-2 would impose multiple and significant barriers that providers of health services to obtain an exemption to section 56 of the CDSA. From five criteria in the Supreme Court decision concerning Insite, Bill C-2 lists 27 requirements (Section 56(1)(3)), which include demographic and scientific data, letters of opinions from representatives of local police and local and provincial governments, information about proposed staff, descriptions of planned procedures and reports from community consultations. Such evidence could require extensive resources and funding by local public health units and community agencies. Some of the data required may only be available in the context of a research project. The data is not only influenced by the existence or not of a supervised consumption site, but by many other factors, such as poverty, enforcement resources and others. Community opinion of supervised consumption sites can also change to be significantly positive after experiencing months of its operation. Finally, Bill C-2 does not address how the Minister is to weigh the information submitted, to guarantee impartiality, or even if he or she must consider an application. Even after meeting all those requirements, the Minister has the sole discretion to decide whether a site can open, and the preamble states that exemptions will only be granted in "exceptional circumstances".
4. Bill C-2 did not involve consultation with provincial and territorial ministries of health, community agencies and professional associations, such as the CMA. Public health authorities and particularly health professionals, who work with people with addictions on a daily basis, recognize the dire need for complementary approaches to substance use that address different needs. The exemption to section 56 is for medical purposes, and public health agencies have the competency to determine when there is a need.
It is the CMA's ultimate position that Bill C-2, the Respect for Communities Act must be withdrawn, and that it be replaced with legislation that recognizes the unequivocal evidence of benefits of supervised consumption sites, that was accepted by the Supreme Court. Legislation would enhance access to health services, which include prevention, harm reduction and treatment services in communities where the evidence has shown they would benefit from such health services.
* "Supervised consumption site" is the term used in Bill C-2, section 56.1, and defined as "a location specified in the terms and conditions of an exemption, granted by the Minister under subsection (2) for a medical purpose, that allows any person or class of persons described in the exemption to engage in certain activities in relation to an illicit substance within a supervised and controlled environment." The Supreme Court of Canada and other documents use terms such as "supervised injection site" "supervised injection services", "drug consumption rooms" or "safer injection site". In the literature, supervised consumption sites could also include supervised inhalation services.
1 Bill C-2: An Act to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. 2nd Session, 41st Parliament. Retrieved from: http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Language=E&Mode=1&DocId=6256959&File=4
2 Supreme Court of Canada (2011) Canada (A.G.) v. PHS Comm. Serv. Soc. Retrieved from: http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/7960/index.do
3 Supreme Court of Canada (2011) Canada (A.G.) v. PHS Comm. Serv. Soc. supra. p.192-3
4 Department of Justice (2013) National Anti-Drug Strategy Evaluation. Retrieved from: http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cp-pm/eval/rep-rap/12/nas-sna/p1.html#sec23
5 Day, Brian (2008) "Ottawa's bad prescription on addiction." Toronto Star, Sunday June 8, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/438967
6 Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (2008) Harm reduction: what's in a name? Retrieved from: http://www.ccsa.ca/Resource%20Library/ccsa0115302008e.pdf
7 National Alcohol Strategy Working Group (2007) Reducing Alcohol-Related Harm in Canada: toward a culture of moderation. Recommendations for a National Alcohol Strategy. Retrieved from: http://ccsa.ca/Resource%20Library/ccsa-023876-2007.pdf
8 International Harm Reduction Association (2010) Harm Reduction: A position statement from the International Harm Reduction Association. IHRA Briefing. Retrieved from: http://www.ihra.net/files/2010/08/10/Briefing_What_is_HR_English.pdf
9 Canadian Medical Association (2010) Factum of the Intervener. Supreme Court of Canada (Appeal from the British Columbia Court of Appeal) between the Attorney General of Canada and Minister of Health for Canada and PHS Community Services Society, Dean Edward Wilson and Shelly Tomic, Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. Retrieved from: https://www.cma.ca/Assets/assets-library/document/en/advocacy/CMA-Factum_filed14April2011.pdf
10 Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (2008) Harm reduction: what's in a name? Retrieved from: http://www.ccsa.ca/Resource%20Library/ccsa0115302008e.pdf
11 Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (2008) Harm reduction: what's in a name? Retrieved from: http://www.ccsa.ca/Resource%20Library/ccsa0115302008e.pdf
12 Schatz, E. & Nougier, M. (2012) Drug consumption rooms: evidence and practice. International Drug Policy Consortium Briefing Paper. Retrieved from: http://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/17898/1/IDPC-Briefing-Paper_Drug-consumption-rooms.pdf
13 City of Vancouver Four Pillars Drug Strategy (2008) Limiting the harms of drug use. Retrieved from: http://vancouver.ca/fourpillars/harmReduction/limitHarmDrugUse.htm
14 Vancouver Coastal Health. Supervised Injection Site (N.D.) Services. Accessed September 19, 2014 at: http://supervisedinjection.vch.ca/services/services
15 Vancouver Coastal Health. Supervised Injection Site (N.D.). Accessed September 19, 2014 at: http://supervisedinjection.vch.ca/research/supporting_research/user_statistics
16 Urban Health Research Initiative (2010). Insight into Insite. Retrieved from: http://www.cfenet.ubc.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/insight_into_insite.pdf
17 Health Canada. Vancouver's Insite service and other supervised injection sites: what has been learned from Research? Final Report of the Expert Advisory Committee. Ottawa: Health Canada, 2008. Prepared for the Hon. Tony Clement, Minister of Health, Government of Canada. Retrieved from: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/pubs/_sites-lieux/insite/index-eng.php
18 Wood, E. et al. (2006) Summary of findings from the evaluation of a pilot medically supervised safer injecting facility. Canadian Medical Association J, 175(11): 1399-1404.
19 Kerr, T. et al. (2005) Safer injection facility use and syringe sharing in injection drug users. The Lancet 366: 316-18.
20 Milloy M.J., Kerr, T., Tyndall, M., Montaner, J., & Wood E. (2008) Estimated drug overdose deaths averted by North America's first medically-supervised safer injection facility. PLoS ONE 3(10):e3351.
21 Marshall B. D. L., Milloy, M.-J., Wood, E., Montaner, J. S. G., & Kerr, T. (2011). Reduction in overdose mortality after the opening of North America's first medically supervised safer injecting facility: A retrospective population-based study. Lancet. Published online April 18, 2011. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(10)62353-7.
22 Wood, E. et al. (2007) Rate of detoxification service use and its impact among a cohort of supervised injecting facility users. Addiction 102: 916-919.
23 Tyndall, M.W. et al. (2005) Attendance, drug use patterns, and referrals made from North America's first supervised injection facility. Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
24 Tyndall, M.W. et al. (2006) HIV seroprevalence among participants at a medically supervised injection facility in Vancouver Canada: Implications for prevention, care and treatment. Harm Reduction J 3:36.
25 Wood, E. et al. (2004) "Changes in public order after the opening of a medically supervised safer injecting facility for illicit injection drug users." Canadian Medical Association J 171(7): 731-34.
26 Health Canada. Vancouver's Insite service and other supervised injection sites: what has been learned from Research? Final Report of the Expert Advisory Committee. Ottawa: Health Canada, 2008. Prepared for the Hon. Tony Clement, Minister of Health, Government of Canada. Retrieved from: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/pubs/_sites-lieux/insite/index-eng.php
27 Andresen, M.A. & Boyd, N. (2010) A cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analysis of Vancouver's supervised injection facility. Int.J.DrugPolicy 21(1): 70-76.
28 Pinkerton, S.D. (2010) Is Vancouver Canada's supervised injection facility cost-saving? Addiction 105(8): 1429-36.
29 Schatz, E. & Nougier, M. (2012) Drug consumption rooms: evidence and practice. International Drug Policy Consortium Briefing Paper.
30 Hedrich, D. (2004) European report on drug consumption rooms. Report prepared for the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction.
31 Watson, T.M. et al. (2012) Police Perceptions of Supervised Consumption Sites (SCSs): A Qualitative Study. Substance Use & Misuse, 47:364-374.
32 Supreme Court of Canada (2011) Canada (A.G.) v. PHS Comm. Serv. Soc. supra. p. 136
33 Schatz, E. & Nougier, M. (2012) Drug consumption rooms: evidence and practice. International Drug Policy Consortium Briefing Paper. (p.20)
34 Supreme Court of Canada (2011) Canada (A.G.) v. PHS Comm. Serv. Soc. supra (p.188).
Good afternoon. My name is Dr. Maura Ricketts and I am the Director of Public Health for the Canadian Medical Association. The CMA appreciates the opportunity to appear before this Committee today as part of your study of clinical trials and drug approvals.
The CMA represents more than 76,000 physicians in Canada. Its mission is to serve and unite the physicians of Canada and to be the national advocate, in partnership with all Canadians, for the highest standards of health and health care.
Because prescription drugs are an essential component of health care, the CMA has developed a considerable body of policy on pharmaceutical issues. This work can be distilled into one fundamental principle: The CMA believes that our country requires a National Pharmaceutical Strategy to ensure every individual has timely access to safe, effective and affordable prescription drugs. Despite the commitment in the 2004 Health Accord to the creation of such a strategy, Canadians continue to wait for government leadership on this issue. Drugs replace more costly and invasive medical interventions. They are an essential tool in the physician's tool box.
To ensure safety and effectiveness, the CMA also believes in the need for a strong, unbiased, evidence-based system for research and approval. This is at the heart of our commitment to patient-centred care.
In evaluating whether to prescribe a new drug to a patient, a physician will weigh several factors: Does this product offer any benefits over what I am prescribing now? Will it be more effective? Will this new drug be safer? Will it solve any tricky clinical problems, such as drug interactions, or reduce side effects that prevent a medication from being used properly? The physician may also ask: What is the evidence that this new drug is an improvement? Can I trust the evidence? Where can I get access to accurate, reliable information and data on this drug?
Pre-approval drug research must provide answers to these fundamental questions.
I will now focus on two particular issues of concern to practising physicians with regard to clinical trials:
* First, what is being compared to what? Clinical trials may be sufficient for Health Canada's regulatory purposes, but may provide only part of the information a physician needs. For example, is a new cholesterol drug effective on all patients, or only on some of them? Would other patients derive equal benefit from an already existing drug, or from a lifestyle change such as diet or exercise? The CMA recommends that researchers compare a new product to other drugs on the market - and to other interventions, as well.
* Second, is timely, reliable and objective information available on all clinical trial results, not just the positive ones? Canadians need to be informed when a drug has performed disappointingly in trials if they are to make informed decisions about their health care. The CMA, therefore, recommends the results of all clinical trials, not just those with positive results, be made available to health professionals and the public.
I would like to add that the current documentation is not very user-friendly. We recommend that Health Canada prepare summaries of the most essential data, not only for physicians, but for all Canadians to be able to access this information.
The Drug Approval Process
Turning now to the drug approval process, the CMA believes the following principles should apply:
* The primary criteria for approval should be whether the drug improves health outcomes and offers an improvement over products currently on the market.
* The review process should be as timely as is consistent with ensuring optimal health outcomes and the safety of the drug supply.
* The review process should be impartial and founded on the best available scientific evidence.
* The review process should be open and transparent.
* Finally, approval of a drug is not an endpoint, but rather one step in that drug's life cycle. It is not uncommon to identify serious safety hazards after a drug has been approved, because that's when it first goes into wide use. It is important that the approval process be complemented by a rigorous and vigilant post-market surveillance process. We look forward to presenting our recommendations on this subject to your Committee at a future session.
Before closing, I would like to briefly address two other matters:
First, the issue of drugs for rare disorders. We are aware that the current clinical trial and approval processes, which place a high value on studies with large population samples, may be unable to adequately capture the value of drugs that are prescribed to only a handful of people. Some patient groups active in the area of rare disorders, such as the Canadian MPS Society and Alpha-1 Canada, have shared their concerns about this with us. These groups, along with the Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders, have been advocating for years for a fair process for evaluating drugs for rare diseases. Because Canada doesn't have a rare disorders strategy, Canadian patients have access to fewer therapies than patients in other developed countries. The issue of how to approve drugs for rare disorders merits closer consideration. The CMA recommends that the federal government develop a policy on drugs for rare disorders that encourages their development, call for ongoing evaluation of their effectiveness, and ensures fairness so that all patients who might benefit have reasonable access to them.
The second matter is that Health Canada's review process provides little guidance on another question which physicians are increasingly asking: Can my patient afford this drug? It is not sufficient that the Common Drug Review conducts reviews of the cost effectiveness of drugs and that provincial/territorial formularies undertake similar studies, as the fact remains that cost is one of the factors physicians need to consider when deciding whether to prescribe a new drug. This is especially true in the case of new biologics, which are very expensive. Canadian doctors believe that the difficulty of making effective prescribing decisions without information about cost needs to be overcome. This only underscores the necessity of a National Pharmaceutical Strategy.
Thank you. We would be happy to answer your questions.
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is pleased to provide its response to Health Canada's public consultation on the Guide to New Authorities (power to require & disclose information, power to order a label change and power to order a recall), in reference to the Protecting Canadians from Unsafe Drugs Act (Vanessa's Law), which came into force on November 6, 2014.
The CMA supports a robust legislative framework toward an unbiased, evidence-based system for the oversight of pharmaceutical products, which spans both the pre- and post-approval of these products, with the ultimate goal of patient safety. Prescription medication plays a critical role as part of a high-quality, patient-centred and cost-effective health care system. It is a priority to physicians that all Canadians have access to affordable, safe and effective prescription medications.
Stemming from this perspective, the CMA strongly welcomed the new ministerial authorities established by Vanessa's Law as an important contribution to patient safety and the effectiveness of Health Canada's oversight of prescription pharmaceuticals. With these new authorities now in effect, it is critical that implementation is comprehensive, effective and transparent. As such, CMA's response to this public consultation on the new Guide will focus on the need for:
* increased clarity on the thresholds that underpin the use of these new authorities,
* guidance on the notification of public, physicians and other health care practitioners, and
* a commitment to ongoing oversight and revision process of this guidance.
ISSUE 1: PROVIDE INCREASED CLARITY ON THE THRESHOLDS
In CMA's brief1 to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health as part of its study of Bill C-17, Protecting Canadians from Unsafe Drugs Act, key recommendations included clarification of both ministerial authority and responsibility in support of patient safety. The CMA supported the intent of the expansion of these powers, but expressed concern with the lack of clarity on the threshold required to be met to enable the use of these new authorities.
In order to ensure the consistent and effective implementation of these new ministerial authorities, the CMA considers it essential that the Guide provide more clarity on the threshold that enables the use of the new authorities, including the determination of serious risk.
To determine this threshold, Health Canada relies on experts to analyze scientific information and make a recommendation to the Minister.
The CMA recommends that guidance be expanded to specify a mechanism for experts, external to Health Canada, to submit recommendations for action and the process by which these recommendations would be considered.
As the definition of "serious risk of injury to human health" is not provided in Vanessa's Law, it is critical that it be addressed in the Guide. Annex A of the Guide states that "the determination of whether a therapeutic product presents a serious risk is complex and is conducted on a case-by-case basis when new information becomes available", and puts forward a "non-exhaustive" list of elements to be considered. It also states that different weights would be attributed to different elements and suggests further contextual elements. The CMA is concerned that without a clear process for the determination of what constitutes a serious risk that subjectivity may have an undue role in this determination and there is the potential for a lack of consistency from case to case. Further, a detailed process is required to ensure that this threshold does not constrain ministerial authority when action is needed.
The CMA recommends that the elements and process for the determination of "serious risk" be further defined, in order to bring clarity to the determination of a threshold for serious risk, and support reasoned decisions which stand up to legal challenges.
ISSUE 2: INCLUDE GUIDANCE NOTIFICATION TO PUBLIC, PHYSICIANS AND OTHER HEALTH CARE PRACTITIONERS
The CMA is supportive of the guiding principles that should govern all decisions made by Health Canada acting as a regulatory decision-maker, i.e., that power is exercised in a process that is free from bias, based on evidence and in a transparent manner.
In order to support transparency, the CMA recommends that the guidance be expanded to include the notification of the public, both by companies2 and by Health Canada, when these new authorities are exercised.
Access to accurate, unbiased information is essential for people to make decisions about their own health.. A clear elaboration and articulation of the process and timelines for how and when public notification is issued in relation to the exercise of the new ministerial authorities is critical to ensure their comprehensive, effective and transparent implementation.
Also, when new information is discovered about a prescription medication, it is important that health professionals be informed as quickly and efficiently as possible.
As part of Health Canada's commitment to transparency, the CMA recommends that the guidance should be expanded to include public disclosure of Health Canada's usage of the guidance: how the thresholds are applied on a case by case basis and the outcomes of decisions, even when the process results in no action being taken.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (U.S. FDA), for example, provides guidance and instructions on their public notification expectations in a situation where a product may pose a significant health hazard.3 In addition, there are different mechanisms of public notification, including 'mobile web' and alerts.
Finally, also consistent with the guidance of the U.S. FDA, the CMA recommends that the guidance be expanded to require evaluation by companies and Health Canada of the use of the power for collection of information, label change or recall and public reporting on the effectiveness of the action taken.
ISSUE 3: SPECIFY THE OVERSIGHT AND REVISION OF THE GUIDANCE
As part of its public consultation outreach with stakeholders on this new guidance, Health Canada officials have described the Guide as an evergreen document that will be continually updated. The CMA is supportive of Health Canada's efforts to engage stakeholders and the public in the development and revision of this guidance.
To ensure clarity on how or when the revision process will be undertaken, the CMA recommends that the guidance include a timeline for revision, a mechanism for stakeholders to identify issues with the guidance, and the circumstances that would trigger an early review, possibly leading to a revision.
The CMA welcomed this opportunity to submit recommendations on how Health Canada may improve the Guide to New Authorities, which is critical to the comprehensive, effective and transparent implementation of the new authorities established by Vanessa's Law. The CMA looks forward to continued and ongoing collaboration with Health Canada on its implementation of these important new powers.
Overview of Recommendations
1. The CMA recommends that the guidance be expanded to specify a mechanism for experts, external to Health Canada, to submit recommendations for action and the process by which these recommendations would be considered.
2. The CMA recommends that the elements and process for the determination of "serious risk" be further defined, in order to bring clarity to the determination of a threshold for serious risk, and support reasoned decisions which stand up to legal challenges.
3. In order to support transparency, the CMA recommends that the guidance be expanded to include the notification of the public, both by companies and by Health Canada when these new authorities are exercised.
4. The CMA recommends that the guidance should be expanded to include public disclosure of Health Canada's usage of the guidance: how the thresholds are applied on a case by case basis and the outcomes of decisions, even when the process results in no action being taken.
5. The CMA recommends that the guidance be expanded to require evaluation by companies and Health Canada of the use of the power for collection of information, label change or recall and public reporting on the effectiveness of the action taken.
6. To ensure clarity on how or when the revision process will be undertaken, the CMA recommends that the guidance include a timeline for revision, a mechanism for stakeholders to identify issues with the guidance, and the circumstances that would trigger an early review, possibly leading to a revision.
1 Canadian Medical Association (2014) Bill C-17 An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act - Protecting Canadians from Unsafe Drugs. Submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health. CMA. Retrieved from: http://policybase.cma.ca/dbtw-wpd/Briefpdf/BR2014-09.pdf
2 Note: Throughout this submission, "companies" refers to whom the new ministerial powers apply outside of the regulator - as explained in the consultation document, in the case of s. 21.1 it is a "person" (can include an individual, a research institution, a corporation or an authorization holder), in the case of 21.2 it is the therapeutic product authorization holder, and in the case of s.21.3 it is a "person".
3 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2015) Guidance for Industry: Product Recalls, Including Removals and Corrections. Retrieved from: http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/IndustryGuidance/ucm129259.htm
The Canadian Medical Association (CMA) is pleased to provide this submission to the House of Commons Health Committee for consideration as part of its study on drug supply in Canada. The severe impact of the disruption in production at one pharmaceutical company's manufacturing facility has demonstrated the significant shortcomings in how drug shortages are managed in Canada. This submission focuses on what is needed to ensure Canada's health care system delivers patient-centred care.
In order to deliver the best possible care to patients, physicians require timely, comprehensive and accurate information about current and anticipated drug supply shocks and constraints. With this objective in mind, we have provided input to the government and to the pharmaceutical industries. Further, Canada requires an uninterrupted supply of medically necessary medication for patients.
Impacts on Patients and the Health Care System
Canada's doctors are deeply concerned about the persistent shortages of drugs that they and their patients are encountering. Prescription drugs can prevent serious disease, reduce hospital stays, replace surgical treatment and improve a patient's capacity to function productively in the community. Pharmaceuticals benefit the health care system by reducing costs in other areas such as hospital stays and disability payments. Disruptions in the supply of pharmaceuticals can impact patient care, patient health and the efficiency of the overall health care system.
At the CMA, patient organizations are telling us about the anxiety, pain and harm that drug shortages are inflicting on patients. Below are excerpts of these experiences:
* According to the Brain Injury Association of Canada: "Any drug medication shortage endangers Canadian patients. In the brain injury community, anti-depressants are prescribed to some, as is pain medication, so if there is a shortage some members in the community will be endangered even if the medication is altered."
* The interim-president of the Canadian Arthritis Patient Alliance, Louise Bergeron, wrote CMA to say: "Actually, I have had this happen to me on three occasions and it is quite scary when you know you will not have access to certain drugs for an extended period of time, since you know your health will be on the line."
* Sharon Baxter, Executive Director, of the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association, says: "All are encouraging the government to find a solution very quickly as pain medication at the end of life is essential and urgent. I don't think we are at the stage where people are dying without access, but getting to that end is totally unacceptable in a country like Canada."
Among the impacts of drug shortages are:
* delays in access to needed medication;
* delays or disruptions to clinical treatment;
* delayed or cancelled surgeries;
* loss of therapeutic effectiveness when an appropriate alternate therapy is not available;
* increased risk of side effects when alternate therapies are used; and
* increased non-compliance when patients, particularly those on long-term therapy, find it harder to comply with a new medication regime.
Any one of these situations can impact patient health, particularly in patients with complex problems. In many instances, this in turn leads to a greater demand on the health care system, whether in physician visits or emergency room treatments.
In a survey of physicians conducted by the CMA in 2011, two-thirds of respondents said that the shortage of generic drugs had had negative consequences for their patients or practice.
Of these physicians, 22 per cent indicated that the consequences were that their patient suffered clinical deterioration because an alternate drug was substituted. Similarly, in a survey of pharmacists by the Canadian Pharmacists Association in 2011, 69 per cent of respondents indicated that they believed that patients' health outcomes had been adversely affected by drug shortages.
Notably, of the physicians who indicated the shortage of generics resulted in consequences to their patients or practice, 28 per cent reported that their patient did not fill the substitution prescription due to the cost of the medication. Numerous respondents raised concerns about the financial impact of substitute medications on patients.
Survey responses also shed light on the increased demand on the health care system created by the lack of information on drug shortages provided to physicians. When physicians are not made aware of a drug shortage, and prescribe that medication, they later have to provide the patient with a new prescription, which often requires an additional patient visit. Better informing physicians about drug shortages can reduce demand on the health care system by eliminating the inefficiencies associated with drug shortages.
Scope of Drug Shortages
In an attempt to outline the scope of the problem, the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH) stated that:
"It is difficult to quantify and determine the extent of drug shortages in Canada because manufacturers are not required to report disruptions in drug supply to Health Canada and because there is no single accountable Canadian organization that provides system-wide drug distribution oversight."i
Surveys by the CMA and the Canadian Pharmacists Association (CPA) shed light on the lack of drug shortages management in Canada. Taken together, the results of these surveys paint an alarming picture of drug shortages management in Canada and underscore the need to improve our system.
In terms of notification, the majority of physicians and pharmacists indicated they never (51 per cent and 29 per cent) or infrequently (32 per cent and 33 per cent) receive advance notice of shortages. Ironically, given the high proportion of pharmacists reporting they never or infrequently receive notice, 65 per cent of physicians indicated that they receive notification from pharmacists. Meanwhile, 30 per cent of physicians also indicated that they were notified of drug shortages by their patients.
Alarmingly, 81 per cent of the pharmacists surveyed indicated they had trouble locating medications to fill a prescription during their last shift prior to completing the survey and 93 per cent had difficulty over the week prior.
This is not a new problem, but since we surveyed CMA members in the fall of 2011, the situation has worsened. Currently about 250 medications are listed on Canadian drug shortage websites. Before the dire impact of the loss of production at Sandoz, Canadian hospitals were already dealing with shortages in the supply of sterile injectables - critical in specialties like surgery, oncology and anesthesia.
What Canada's Doctors Require to Provide Care
Physicians have expressed their frustration at the time it takes to find an appropriate drug for substitution - time taken from the physician, the pharmacy and the patient. Time better spent with patients is being used by physicians to work with pharmacists to identify alternative drugs and therapies.
Of greatest concern are those drugs that are single sourced. When single source medications are in short supply, there are no clear substitutes. The impact of this is being felt now in hospitals across the country as they grapple with the loss of numerous Sandoz products and are forced to ration the remaining stock.
The majority of physicians surveyed by the CMA indicated that greater knowledge of drug supply issues would allow them to deliver better patient care.
To this end, the CMA strongly supports the development of a comprehensive system for monitoring and responding to domestic shortages of medically necessary drugs. Canada needs a sustainable, adequately resourced system to: identify shortages, rapidly and proactively inform health care professionals, and respond quickly to allocate supply as needed to resolve shortages.
The CMA has provided input to both industry and government on the key information needs of doctors. These are:
* Information about the product in short supply;
* Expected duration of the shortage;
* Therapeutic alternatives;
* Regions affected;
* Notification of the end of the shortage.
While the recent establishment of the online inventories by the pharmaceutical industry associations marks an improvement in Canada's management of drug shortages, significant issues remain to be addressed. These include the need for: complete and more consistent information; automatic notifications to alert physicians, pharmacists and other health care providers; a mechanism to prevent potential disruptions; and a mechanism to seek new or interim sources of supply during a shortage.
The CMA recognizes that other countries are also grappling with drug shortages. Canada must also work with its partners abroad to find an international solution to this phenomenon.
Drug shortages management in Canada has significant shortcomings that impact patients, doctors and the health care system. With the current shortage of injectable drugs teetering on the verge of a crisis, quick action and cooperation are required to address the supply shock.
The CMA calls on Members of Parliament to exercise leadership to ensure that Canada's health care providers have access to the information necessary for them to care for their patients, and that Canadians have access to medically necessary drugs.
i Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health. (2011) "Environmental Scan: Drug Supply Disruptions." Ottawa: CADTH, accessed online at: http://www.cadth.ca/media/pdf/Drug_Supply_Disruptions_es-18_e.pdf, 1.
The Canadian Medical Association is pleased to take part in the second phase of the study of prescription pharmaceuticals by the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. During the first phase, we presented the CMA's policy position regarding clinical trials and the process for approving new drugs for use. In this phase we will discuss our position and recommendations on post-approval surveillance of prescription drugs.
The Canadian Medical Association represents 76,000 physicians in Canada. Its mission is to serve and unite the physicians of Canada and to be the national advocate, in partnership with the people of Canada, for the highest standards of health and health care.
Prescription drugs are a very important part of high quality and cost-effective health care. They can prevent serious disease, reduce the need for hospital stays, replace surgical treatment and improve a patient's capacity to function productively in the community. Therefore, the CMA has developed a substantial body of policy on pharmaceutical issues, including on the post-approval surveillance of prescription drugs.
The essence of our position is contained in our first recommendation:
The CMA recommends that federal and provincial/territorial governments collaborate to develop and implement a national pharmaceutical strategy to ensure that every Canadian has timely access to an adequate supply of safe and effective prescription drugs.
This recommendation has two elements: "safe and effective" and "adequate supply," both of which we will discuss in this submission.
2) Ensuring Safety and Effectiveness
As we have previously told this Committee, the CMA supports a robust regulatory framework and system for researching and approving new pharmaceutical products. But however strong Canada's pre-approval system is, it will not identify all potential problems with a new drug. Pre-approval clinical trials tend to focus on small numbers of patients, and exclude vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly. They also tend to be of short duration, whereas in the real world, patients may take these drugs for years. As a consequence, problems with a drug are often identified only after widespread, long-term use in the general population. For this reason, it is essential that Canada have in place a robust regulatory framework that includes a timely system to monitor the performance of prescription drugs after they come on the market.
The Government of Canada has taken several recent steps to enhance its drug surveillance system. In 2009, it established the Drug Safety and Effectiveness Research Network. In 2008, it introduced Bill C-51, An Act to Amend the Food and Drugs Act, to improve drug safety and effectiveness monitoring by Health Canada. Unfortunately, the bill died with the 2008 election call and has not been re-introduced. That is why we are pleased that the Senate has chosen to re-open this issue.
What would a comprehensive post-approval surveillance regulatory framework and system look like? In order to effectively monitor the safety and effectiveness of the country's drug supply, the CMA believes it should include:
a) Comprehensive processes for gathering drug safety and effectiveness data
In gathering data about adverse drug reactions (ADRs) in Canada, Health Canada has traditionally relied on spontaneous reports from manufacturers and health professionals. The government could enhance its capacity to gather information by:
* making it easier for physicians and other health professionals to report ADRs voluntarily. This can be accomplished by making the reporting system user-friendly and easy to incorporate into a practitioner's busy schedule. Health Canada has improved the process by introducing online reporting, which may have contributed to the significant increase in the number of ADR reports over the past 10 years. The reporting process could be made even more efficient by incorporating it directly into the Electronic Medical Record (EMR) as this is developed.
* augmenting spontaneous reports with information gathered through other, more systematic means. These could include formal post-market studies of specific drugs, or recruitment of "sentinel" groups of health care providers who would contract to report ADRs in detail, and who, because of these contractual obligations, would be committed to assiduous reporting.
b) A capacity for rigorous and timely data analysis to identify significant threats to drug safety.
Information gathering does not in itself constitute post-market surveillance. In our opinion, the most important element of the process is the monitoring and analysis that occurs once an adverse drug reaction (ADR) report has been received.
Monitoring capacity requires rigorous data analysis that can sort "signal from noise" - in other words, sift through the reports, find the ones that indicate unusual events, investigate their cause, and isolate those that indicate a serious health risk. It also requires that the analysis be timely: we note that in 2011 the Auditor General was particularly critical of Health Canada's post-market surveillance timeliness, noting that it could take several years for reports to be reviewed internally.
Post-market monitoring should do more than identify safety risks. It should also provide information about a drug's efficacy and effectiveness. Does it achieve the health outcome for which it is being marketed? Does it perform better than other drugs or therapies for the same condition?
c) Communication of useful information to health care providers and the public.
When new information is uncovered about a prescription drug, it is important that physicians and other health professionals are made aware of it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Therefore, post-approval surveillance requires a system for communicating timely, reliable and objective information to physicians and other health professionals, which they can absorb quickly and incorporate into their everyday practice. Ideally, this communication would report not the safety problem alone but also its implications for their patients and practice: for example, whether some patients are particularly at risk, or whether therapeutic alternatives are available.
The CMA recommends that Health Canada continue to improve the capacity of its post-approval surveillance system to:
* Make it easier for health professionals to submit voluntary ADR reports;
* Analyze the data that has been gathered in a rigorous and timely manner; and
* Communicate essential information to health care providers and the public in a timely and user-friendly manner.
d) Increased regulatory authority for Health Canada
Drug safety is a serious issue; recent research has revealed that nearly a quarter of new drugs approved in Canada will eventually receive a serious safety warning1. Given the potential risks to patient safety we believe Health Canada should have the legal authority to take strong action when a safety problem is identified.
The CMA recommends that Health Canada should be given the authority to:
* require post-market studies of newly approved drugs if clinical trials identify possible safety risks;
* require manufacturers to disclose information if Health Canada thinks it germane to making a decision in the interest of patient safety; and
* take action if post-market research uncovers new safety concerns. This could mean ordering changes to product labels, or pulling a product off the market.
Granting Health Canada this regulatory authority is only the first step. Health Canada should not hesitate to use this authority if the situation warrants.
3) Ensuring an Adequate Drug Supply
In the past few years Canada's doctors have become deeply concerned about the persistent shortages of drugs that they and their patients are encountering. In a survey of physicians conducted by the CMA in September 2012, two-thirds of respondents said that the shortage of drugs was a significant issue in terms of its impact on patient care and outcomes. Of these physicians, 70 per cent indicated that their patient received a less effective medication, and 20 per cent had patients who had suffered clinical deterioration because an alternate drug was substituted. This in turn leads to a greater demand on the health care system, whether in physician visits or emergency room treatments. Twenty-three per cent reported that their patient suffered financially due to the cost of the substituted medication, since many of the drugs in short supply are older, low-cost generics.
The lack of information about shortages compounds the stress of dealing with them. When physicians prescribe a medication, unaware that it is in short supply, they later have to provide the patient with a new prescription, which often requires an additional patient visit. Physicians have expressed their frustration at the time it takes to find an appropriate substitute drug - time which could better be spent in patient care.
As a consequence, the CMA strongly supports the development of a comprehensive system for monitoring domestic shortages of medically necessary drugs. To be of greatest benefit to doctors, such a system should include:
* Information about the product in short supply;
* Expected duration of the shortage;
* Therapeutic alternatives;
* Regions affected;
* Notification of the end of the shortage.
Although pharmaceutical industry associations and drug manufacturers are now supporting a drug shortage reporting website (http://www.drugshortages.ca/drugshortages.asp), there is room for improvement. The reporting website does not yet capture all of the drug product shortages. It must become more user friendly for health practitioners and the public, with search and sort functions to easily find product listings. In addition, a mechanism to obtain information on possible therapeutic substitutions would be of value to practitioners.
The CMA recommends that Health Canada work with provincial and territorial governments, industry groups and health professionals to enhance the current system for reporting drug shortages and ensure its sustainability.
Finally, while a reporting system to provide information to health professionals and Canadians on drug shortages is valuable, it is essential that Canada address the root causes of drug shortages. A review of the supply processes, both domestic and international, is strongly recommended.
While the CMA acknowledges that provinces are responsible for purchasing drugs, we believe that solutions will be stronger if all provinces, and the federal government, work together on them. And since drug shortages are an international concern, it is the responsibility of the Government of Canada to work with other countries in seeking solutions.
The CMA supports an investigation into the underlying causes of prescription drug shortages in Canada.
4) Other Important Elements of a National Pharmaceutical Strategy
As Recommendation 1 states, the CMA believes that Canada's federal and provincial/territorial governments should implement a national pharmaceutical strategy, one of whose objectives would be to ensure an adequate supply of prescription drugs. The strategy should address other important objectives, as well, notably:
* ensuring comprehensive prescription drug coverage for all Canadians. According to a recent CMA survey, one in 10 Canadians has gone without a prescription drug because they couldn't afford it. Governments should work with private insurers and other stakeholders to develop a system to provide equitable, comprehensive prescription drug coverage to all Canadians.
* encouraging optimal prescribing by health professionals. To accomplish this, the CMA has recommended a strategy that includes education, user-friendly guidelines and practice tools, and the provision of impartial information to health professionals and the public.
Once again, we commend the Senate Social Affairs Committee for bringing this issue to your table. Canada's physicians are prepared to work with governments, health professionals and the public in strengthening Canada's post-approval surveillance system, to ensure that the prescription drugs Canadians receive are safe and effective and in adequate supply.
1 Lexchin J. New drugs and safety: what happened to new active substances approved in Canada between 1995 and 2010? Arch Intern Med. 2012;():1-2. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.4444.
COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE
This statement discusses the Canadian Medical Association's (CMA) position on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). CAM, widely used in Canada, is increasingly being subject to regulation. The CMA's position is based on the fundamental premise that decisions about health care interventions used in Canada should be based on sound scientific evidence as to their safety, efficacy and effectiveness - the same standard by which physicians and all other elements of the health care system should be assessed. Patients deserve the highest standard of treatment available, and physicians, other health practitioners, manufacturers, regulators and researchers should all work toward this end. All elements of the health care system should "consider first the well-being of the patient."1 The ethical principle of non-maleficence obliges physicians to reduce their patient's risks of harm. Physicians must constantly strive to balance the potential benefits of an intervention against its potential side effects, harms or burdens. To help physicians meet this obligation, patients should inform their physician if the patient uses CAM.
CAM in Canada
CAM has been defined as "a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine."i This definition comprises a great many different, otherwise unrelated products, therapies and devices, with varying origins and levels of supporting scientific evidence. For the purpose of this analysis, the CMA divides CAM into four general categories:
* Diagnostic Tests: Provided by CAM practitioners. Unknown are the toxicity levels or the source of test material, e.g., purity. Clinical sensitivity, specificity, and predictive value should be evidence-based.
* Products: Herbal and other remedies are widely available over-the-counter at pharmacies and health food stores. In Canada these are regulated at the federal level under the term Natural Health Products.
* Interventions: Treatments such as spinal manipulation and electromagnetic field therapy may be offered by a variety of providers, regulated or otherwise.
* Practitioners: There are a large variety of practitioners whose fields include chiropractic, naturopathy, traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, and many others. Many are unregulated or regulated only in some provinces/territories of Canada.
Many Canadians have used, or are currently using, at least one CAM modality. A variety of reasons has been cited for CAM use, including: tradition; curiosity; distrust of mainstream medicine; and belief in the "holistic" concept of health which CAM practitioners and users believe they provide. For most Canadians the use is complementary (in addition to conventional medicine) rather than alternative (as a replacement). Many patients do not tell their physicians that they are using CAM.
Toward Evidence-Informed Health Care
Use of CAM carries risks, of which its users may be unaware. Indiscriminate use and undiscriminating acceptance of CAM could lead to misinformation, false expectations, and diversion from more appropriate care, as well as adverse health effects, some of them serious.
The CMA recommends that federal, provincial and territorial governments respond to the health care needs of Canadians by ensuring the provision of clinical care that continually incorporates evidence-informed technological advances in information, prevention, and diagnostic and therapeutic services.2 Physicians take seriously their duty to advocate for quality health care and help their patients choose the most beneficial interventions. Physicians strongly support the right of patients to make informed decisions about their medical care. However, the CMA's Code of Ethics requires physicians to recommend only those diagnostic and therapeutic procedures that they consider to be beneficial to the patient or to others.3 Until CAM interventions are supported by scientifically-valid evidence, physicians should not recommend them. Unless proven beneficial, CAM services should not be publicly funded. To help ensure that Canadians receive the highest-quality health care, the CMA recommends that CAM be subject to rigorous research on its effects, that it be strictly regulated, and that health professionals and the public have access to reliable, accurate, evidence-informed information on CAM products and therapies. Specific recommendations are provided below:
a) Research: Building an Evidence Base
To date, much of the public's information on CAM has been anecdotal, or founded on exaggerated claims of benefit based on few or low-quality studies. The CMA is committed to the principle that, before any new treatment is adopted and applied by the medical profession, it must first be rigorously tested and recognized as evidence-informed.4 Increasingly, good-quality, well-controlled studies are being conducted on CAM products and therapies. The CMA supports this development. Research into promising therapies is always welcome and should be encouraged, provided that it is subject to the same standards for proof and efficacy as those for conventional medical and pharmaceutical treatments. The knowledge thus obtained should be widely disseminated to health professionals and the public.
b) An Appropriate Regulatory Framework
Regulatory frameworks governing CAM, like those governing any health intervention, should enshrine the concept that therapies should have a proven benefit before being represented to Canadians as effective health treatments.
i) Natural Health Products. Natural health products are regulated at the federal level through the Natural Health Products Directorate of Health Canada.
The CMA believes that the principle of fairness must be applied to the regulatory process so that natural health products are treated fairly in comparison with other health products.5 The same regulatory standards should apply to both natural health products and pharmaceutical health products. These standards should be applied to natural health products regardless of whether a health claim is made for the product. This framework must facilitate the entry of products onto the market that are known to be safe and effective, and impede the entry of products that are not known to be safe and effective until they are better understood. It should also ensure high manufacturing standards to assure consumers of the products' safety, quality and purity. The CMA also recommends that a series of standards be developed for each natural health product. These standards should include:
* manufacturing processes that ensure the purity, safety and quality of the product;
* labelling standards that include standards for consumer advice, cautions and claims, and explanations for the safe use of the product to the consumer.6
The CMA recommends that safety and efficacy claims for natural health products be evaluated by an arm's length scientific panel, and claims for the therapeutic value of natural health products should be prohibited when the supportive evidence does not meet the evidentiary standard required of medications regulated by Health Canada.7 Claims of medical benefit should only be permitted when compelling scientific evidence of their safety and efficacy exists.8
The Canadian Medical Association advocates that foods fortified with "natural health" ingredients should be regulated as food products and not as natural health products
The CMA recommends that the regulatory system for natural health products be applied to post-marketing surveillance as well as pre-marketing regulatory review. Health Canada's MedEffect adverse reaction reporting system now collects safety reports on Natural Health Products. Consumers, health professionals and manufacturers are encouraged to report adverse reactions to Health Canada.
ii) CAM Practitioners. Regulation of CAM practitioners is at different stages. The CMA believes that this regulation should: ensure that the services CAM practitioners offer are truly efficacious; establish quality control mechanisms and appropriate standards of practice; and work to develop an evidence-informed body of competence that develops with evolving knowledge.
Just as the CMA believes that natural health products should be treated fairly in comparison with other health products, it recommends that CAM practitioners be held to the same standards as other health professionals. All CAM practitioners should develop Codes of Ethics that insure practitioners consider first the best interests of their patients.
Among other things, associations representing CAM practitioners should develop and adhere to conflict of interest guidelines that require their members to:
* Resist any influence or interference that could undermine their professional integrity;9
* Recognize and disclose conflicts of interest that arise in the course of their professional duties and activities, and resolve them in the best interests of patients;10
* Refrain, for the most part, from dispensing the products they prescribe. Engaging in both prescribing and dispensing , whether for financial benefit or not, constitutes a conflict of interest where the provider's own interests conflict with their duty to act in the best interests of the patient.
c) Information and Promotion
Canadians have the right to reliable, accurate information on CAM products and therapies to help ensure that the treatment choices they make are informed. The CMA recommends that governments, manufacturers, health care providers and other stakeholders work together to ensure that Canadians have access to this information. The CMA believes that all natural health products should be labeled so as to include a qualitative list of all ingredients. 11 Information on CAM should be user-friendly and easy to access, and should include:
* Instructions for use;
* Indications that the product or therapy has been convincingly proven to treat;
* Contraindications, side effects and interactions with other medications;
* Should advise the consumer to inform their health care provider during any encounter that they are using this product.12
This information should be provided in such a way as to minimize the impact of vested commercial interests on its content.
In general, brand-specific advertising is a less than optimal way of providing information about any health product or therapy. In view of our limited knowledge of their effectiveness and the risks they may contain risks, the advertising of health claims for natural health products should be severely restricted. The CMA recommends that health claims be promoted only if they have been established with sound scientific evidence. This restriction should apply not only to advertising, but also to all statements made in product or company Web sites and communications to distributors and the public. Advertisements should be pre-cleared to ensure that they contain no deceptive messages. Sanctions against deceptive advertising must be rigidly enforced, with Health Canada devoting adequate resources to monitor and correct misleading claims.
The CMA recommends that product labels include approved health claims, cautions and contraindications, instructions for the safe use of the product, and a recommendation that patients tell physicians that they are using the products. If no health claims are approved for a particular natural health product, the label should include a prominent notice that there is no evidence the product contributes to health or alleviates disease.
The Role of Health Professionals
Whether or not physicians and other health professionals support the use of CAM, it is important that they have access to reliable information on CAM products and therapies, so that they can discuss them with their patients.
Patients should be encouraged to report use of all health products, including natural health products, to health care providers during consultations. The CMA encourages Canadians to become educated about their own health and health care, and to appraise all health information critically.
The CMA will continue to advocate for evidence-informed assessment of all methods of health care in Canada, and for the provision of accurate, timely and reliable health information to Canadian health care providers and patients.
i Working definition used by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
1 Canadian Medical Association. CMA code of ethics (update 2004). Ottawa: The Association; 2004.
2 Canadian Medical Association. Policy resolution GC00-196 - Clinical care to incorporate evidence-based technological advances. Ottawa (ON): The Association; 2000. Available: http://policybase.cma.ca/dbtw-wpd/CMAPolicy/PublicB.htm.
3 Canadian Medical Association. CMA code of ethics (update 2004). Ottawa: The Association; 2004. Available: http://policybase.cma.ca/dbtw-wpd/CMAPolicy/PublicB.htm.
4 Canadian Medical Association. CMA statement on emerging therapies [media release]. Ottawa (ON): The Association; 2010. Available: www.facturation.net/advocacy/emerging-therapies.
5 Canadian Medical Association. CMA statement on emerging therapies [media release]. Available: www.facturation.net/advocacy/emerging-therapies.
6 Canadian Medical Association. Brief BR1998-02 - Regulatory framework for natural health products. Ottawa (ON): The Association; 1998.
7 Canadian Medical Association. Policy resolution GC08-86 - Natural health products. Ottawa (ON): The Association; 2008.
8 Canadian Medical Association. Policy resolution GC10-100 - Foods fortified with "natural health" ingredients. Ottawa (ON): The Association; 2010. Available:
9 Canadian Medical Association. CMA code of ethics (update 2004). Ottawa: The Association; 2004. Paragraph 7. Available: http://policybase.cma.ca/dbtw-wpd/CMAPolicy/PublicB.htm.
10 Canadian Medical Association. CMA code of ethics (update 2004). Ottawa: The Association; 2004. Paragraph 11. Available: http://policybase.cma.ca/dbtw-wpd/CMAPolicy/PublicB.htm.
11 Canadian Medical Association. Brief BR1998-02 - Regulatory framework for natural health products. Ottawa: The Association; 1998.
12 Canadian Medical Association. Brief BR1998-02 - Regulatory framework for natural health products. Ottawa: The Association; 1998.