Gerry Gajadharsingh writes:
“These are quite worrying statistics, 25% of the UK population are taking potentially addictive medicines, with half of them dependent on the drugs for the long term, two million people had been on them for at least three years.
Medication, the main stay treatment of conventional medicine, can be lifesaving sometimes and convenient for many patients in the short term, to manage symptoms. There are of course many conditions where long term medication may be necessary. However, the medications mentioned in the report focuses on antidepressants, sleeping pills and painkillers, all potentially addictive and often associated with withdrawal symptoms when trying to reduce or stop them.
Patients described not being offered any non-medicinal treatment options, a lack of review, and a lack of access to effective management and NHS support services, when trying to come off these drugs.
It is often possible to come off these drugs, but alternative treatments and support for the patient is important, sadly often lacking for many patients. A multi-disciplinary approach can be very helpful, offered by clinicians who understand the alternatives and a gradual reduction, often over several weeks/months, of the medication is necessary.”
A quarter of adults in England are taking potentially addictive prescription medicines, with half of them dependent on the drugs for the long term, according to a report.
Nearly 12 million people took drugs such as antidepressants, sleeping pills and painkillers between 2017 and last year, the biggest review of dependency in England found.
The Public Health England (PHE) report — described as a wake-up call for the NHS — said that half of these people had been taking the drugs for at least a year and that nearly two million people had been on them for at least three years, including almost a million on antidepressants. Some patients were taking more than one drug.
The report, commissioned by the government, looked into five groups of drugs: antidepressants; opioid pain medicines; gabapentinoids, often prescribed for neuropathic pain; benzodiazepines, for anxiety and insomnia; and Z-drugs, usually for insomnia.
It is the first time that health chiefs have officially said that the drugs were all associated with withdrawal symptoms and — except for antidepressants — were linked to a risk of addiction.
The report said that patients had complained of “harmful effects” when they tried to stop taking the drugs. This affected their wellbeing and ability to function normally, sometimes for months, but many were not offered alternatives or support.
“Patients described a lack of information on side-effects and withdrawal as well as feeling doctors and other prescribers did not acknowledge withdrawal or did not recognise it,” the report said. “They described not being offered any non-medicinal treatment options, a lack of review, and a lack of access to effective management and NHS support services.”
Women were one and a half times more likely to be prescribed the drugs than men. Prescription rates and usage duration were higher in deprived areas.
The PHE report also demanded a 24-hour helpline to advise people on how to reduce their medication. PHE officials said that they were concerned about how many patients were taking the drugs long term. There was no evidence that the drugs, except for antidepressants, were effective if taken continuously, the report said. Experts said many patients were likely to be on them unnecessarily, although they advised patients not to stop taking any of the drugs without first consulting their GP.
Rosanna O’Connor, the director of drugs for PHE, said: “It is a bit of a wake-up call and we are expecting a step-change from the NHS in the way in which they look at this . . . because what we do know is it is difficult for people to stop using these drugs.”
PHE recommended more training and guidance for doctors. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the medicine watchdog, is updating guidelines on how patients should be supported to come off the drugs.
Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said GPs needed better access to alternative therapies and that more research into these was needed. Keith Ridge, NHS England’s chief pharmaceutical officer, said some of the medicines needed to be used long term but “for many patients they may not be the best option”.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said he would not let the issue escalate as in the US, saying: “The entire healthcare system will now be involved in making sure that we put an end to this.”