Prescriptions for opioids ‘fall by almost half-a-million over last four years’

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GPs and pharmacists have helped slash prescriptions for potentially addictive opioid drugs by 450,000 in under four years, latest data suggests.

New figures published by NHS England show prescriptions for opioids fell from 5.68 million to 5.23 million between 2019/20 and the year ending November 2022.

The number of benzodiazepines prescribed had also fallen by 170,000, from 1.25 million to 1.08 million.

But the charity Versus Arthritis said the medicines could be very helpful for some people with arthritis and “in the UK, opioid addiction is fortunately rare among people with chronic pain”.

It said the medicines must not be stigmatised.

NHS England said that to build on existing progress in cutting prescriptions, a new plan aimed to further reduce inappropriate prescribing of painkillers and other addictive drugs through supporting GPs and pharmacists to give patients a personalised review of their medicines.

NHS England said an 8% drop in prescriptions in under three years for opioids was estimated to have saved nearly 350 lives and prevented more than 2,100 incidents of patient harm.

In 2017/18, one in four adults in England were prescribed benzodiazepines, the z-drugs zopiclone and zolpidem, gabapentinoids, opioids for chronic non-cancer pain or antidepressants.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, national medical director for NHS England, said: “We know that patients who require prescriptions for potentially addictive drugs can become dependent and struggle with withdrawal, and this new action plan helps NHS services to continue positive work in this space having already slashed opioid prescriptions by almost half-a-million over the last four years.

“The plan gives clear guidance to support patients who no longer need these drugs to provide them with routine medicine reviews and move them on to other, alternative therapies where appropriate, saving both lives and taxpayer money in the process.”

“Medicines like opioids can be very helpful for some people with arthritis, and in the UK, opioid addiction is fortunately rare among people with chronic pain.

“We must take care not to stigmatise these medicines or the people who use them, and it would be wrong to frighten people who depend on them to get through their day.

“For many people with arthritis, medicines alone do not address the issues they need help with in managing their condition, such as the physical and mental health consequences, or being unable to work and cut off from hobbies, friends and community.

“An effort to move beyond medicines is welcome only if it means that people with arthritis – and other forms of chronic pain – will be able to access the wider support they need, which should include support with mental health, physical activity, and employment. Versus Arthritis has been calling for this for years.”

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