Older Australians are facing an unprecedented overdose crisis.
Is your medicine cabinet as safe as you believe?
Older people are the largest users of medicines, often using both prescription and non-prescription medicines to assist in treating age-related and disease-related physiological and pathological issues. A study published by the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia in the Journal of Pharmacy Practice and Research, found that of 4500 randomly selected Australians aged 75 and above, 66 per cent reported taking five or more medicines, and more than 20 per cent reported using 10 or more.
But are they using these medicines properly?
A new report by Victoria’s Penington Institute titled Australia's Annual Overdose Report 2016 revealed that in 2014, eight of 10 accidental overdose deaths in Australia involved men and women aged between 30 and 59. Additionally, the number of Australians dying from overdoses in their 50s and 60s has tripled. The report found that since 2004, prescription medicine was responsible for 71 per cent of drug-related deaths in Australia.
Penington Institute CEO John Ryan called the issue an epidemic and suggested Australian governments urgently need to take action.
“These figures challenge the conventional wisdom that it is young urban people who are most at risk of dying of overdose in Australia.
“The data suggests older Australians are facing an unprecedented overdose crisis. If the current trend continues, in five years the age of people most likely to die of overdose will be those aged 50 to 59. These grim figures underscore just how severe the overdose epidemic is right now in Australia,” Mr Ryan said.
The report’s most significant discovery?
Over the past decade, the number of middle-aged men who have died from a drug overdose has skyrocketed. From 2004 to 2014, 762 men and 375 women died from an accidental drug overdose – with opioids, a pharmaceutical form of heroin, to blame.
According to the Penington Institute report, prescription opioid deaths increased by 87 per cent between 2008 and 2014. The most noticeable increase – 148 per cent – occurred in rural and regional areas.
While problems with medicine use and safety in older Australians increase, medical bodies are concerned that not enough is being done to provide comprehensive education regarding safe drug use.
It’s clear that Australians need better education about their prescription medicines. When doctors prescribe and pharmacists sell medicines, they generally do their best to inform patients about how to properly administer the drugs.
Unfortunately, most people need more guidance. Sure, the leaflet inside the box may provide some useful general information. However, the information people require most is relevant to their particular situation. Nearly four in 10 Australians report feeling some confusion when starting a new medicine but may be nervous or embarrassed about asking questions.
As the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia paper found, more than 20 per cent of study respondents aged 75 and above reported using 10 or more medicines. That leaves a lot of room for confusion.
Thankfully, this fact is already recognised by some medical organisations, including the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
Beginning today, the TGA has announced it will change Australia’s medicine labels for the first time in 15 years. The aim is to include easier-to-find active ingredients, a critical information panel and designated space for a dispensing label.
“These new changes aim to improve readability and usability of medicine labels by emphasising the active ingredient and critical health information of a particular medicine,” said a TGA spokesperson.
This change in labelling practice highlights the huge problem Australians have with prescription drugs and the recognition that change is urgently needed.
Last week, pharmacists across Australia took part in a campaign to promote safer and wiser use of medicines, as part of the sixth annual Be Medicinewise Week. The campaign aimed to reduce this confusion. It followed the news that those least likely to follow medication instructions were people who only use medicines occasionally.
Prescription drug use continues to soar in Australia and the overdose fatalities rising with it are shocking enough to prompt changes to labelling practices. However, these methods are struggling to keep pace. For now, close attention should be paid to the kinds of drugs we (and our families) take and whether they’re really necessary. Always seek further guidance if in doubt about your medicines.
For more information about how to be responsible with your medicines, check out this guide released during Be Medicinewise Week.
Do you experience confusion when taking medicines? What else can be done to make prescription medicines safer for Australians?