The UK is grappling with a pressing public health issue: the opioid crisis. Opioid misuse and addiction have surged in recent years, leading to a significant increase in overdose deaths and a burden on the healthcare system. Data published by National Health Service (NHS) England shows that in a four-year period, general practitioners (GPs) and pharmacists have successfully prescribed 450,000 fewer opioid prescriptions in England. In March 2023, the NHS released an action plan to further reduce the overuse of opioid medications in the UK.
The widespread use of opioid painkillers has contributed to a concerning rise in addiction and dependency. By 2017–2018, data revealed that one in four adults in England were prescribed opioids for chronic non-cancer pain, benzodiazepines, z-drugs, gabapentinoids, or antidepressants. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the NHS has been proactive in implementing measures to combat this crisis. The latest data indicates that the NHS’s initiatives have already resulted in a significant reduction of the amount of opioid painkillers being prescribed, by 8% in under three years, potentially saving nearly 350 lives and preventing more than 2,100 incidents of patient harm. Furthermore, prescriptions for benzodiazepines and sleeping pills have also fallen by 13.9% and 10.2%, respectively, since the implementation of key recommendations outlined in a 2019 review by Public Health England.
Several contextual factors contribute to opioid-related mortality, including the over-prescription of opioids for chronic pain management, social determinants of health, economic disparities, trauma, and the wide availability of illicit opioids. The UK has been particularly affected by the opioid crisis, with some of the highest rates of drug-related deaths in Europe. According to GlobalData’s forecast, there are estimated to be more than 360,000 total prevalent cases of opioid addiction in the UK in 2023.
The primary goal of the NHS’s newly released action plan is to ensure that patients receive personalised reviews of their medicines and participate in shared decision-making processes. This approach empowers GPs and clinical pharmacists to assess whether a change in treatment is required, especially when the clinical benefits of continuing a particular drug decrease, or when harm may result without intervention. Furthermore, the plan highlights the importance of providing appropriate services for patients who are experiencing withdrawal symptoms from prescribed medications and ensuring that alternative treatments and services are available to support patients.
The opioid crisis has been a formidable challenge for public health authorities. By investing in strategies to reduce inappropriate prescriptions and fostering patient-centred care, GPs and pharmacists have already made significant progress. Through a combination of innovation and investment in patient services, the UK can begin to mitigate the opioid crisis and improve the lives of countless individuals across the nation.
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