Our founder Dr Zahid Chauhan OBE has raised concerns after new figures show doctors in the borough gave fewer methadone prescriptions to treat opioid addiction last year.
Methadone, marketed under the brand name Physeptone, is a synthetic opioid used to help people who have a heroin addiction by reducing withdrawal symptoms.
The drug is only available on prescription from GPs or drug treatment services.
Methadone is addictive, like all opioids. When used for detox, a treatment plan includes details for gradually reducing and then stopping doses of it.
Figures from the NHS OpenPrescribing service show 621 prescriptions for methadone were given out by GPs in the former NHS Oldham Clinical Commissioning Group to treat substance dependence. This was down from 857 the year before.
It was also down significantly from five years prior when 3,807 prescriptions were handed out in 2018.
This data shows the number of prescriptions given by GPs, rather than patients – a single patient may have been prescribed a drug multiple times over the same year. https://openprescribing.net/analyse/#org=CCG&orgIds=00Y&numIds=0410030C0&denom=nothing&selectedTab=chart
It follows the trend across England where prescriptions for the opioid drug have fallen 18 per cent in the last five years – from about 634,000 GP prescriptions in 2018 to 518,000 last year.
The total cost to the NHS across England for these prescriptions over the past five years was £18.4 million, with last year costing around £3.3 million.
Royton GP raises concerns
Dr Zahid Chauhan OBE, a Royton Medical Centre GP who is also the borough’s deputy mayor and the creator of the Homeless-Friendly charity, said: “It would be my sincere hope that the reduction in methadone prescriptions was due to a fall in addiction and the success of government anti-drugs campaigns nationally.
“But I have my doubts. Unfortunately, it could instead be that homeless people and others who are living with opiate addiction believe that their GP will not be able to see them.
“This is why we desperately need investment in primary care. I genuinely believe that surgeries are more open and accommodating to the most vulnerable here in the North West – and that is down to the work of our Homeless-Friendly charity and others.
“However, drug rehabilitation programmes and intervention and advocacy schemes have also been reduced due to austerity, and that has not helped at all.
“We have to ensure that addiction is treated as an illness and that those in the grip of it have proper support. Imagine the impact on crime, families, communities and health if that happened.”
Martin Blakebrough, chief executive of national charity Kaleidoscope, which runs drug and alcohol services, said the drop in GP prescriptions for methadone is concerning news.
He added the stigma surrounding drug use means many GPs are reluctant to help opiate users.
He said: “The big problem from my perspective however is that where possible a person’s GP should be able to support their patients and too many are avoiding this responsibility and in effect discharging that responsibility to drug agencies who are primarily tasked in helping those who do not engage in mainstream services.”
‘We need to be alert to the risks’
The NHS said GPs and pharmacists have cut all opioid prescriptions in England, including methadone, by 450,000 in under four years.
It comes as the NHS announced a new action plan to crack down on the overuse of potentially addictive medicines such as sleeping pills and benzodiazepine.
Professor Tony Avery, NHS England Prescribing national clinical director said medicines offers a range of tools to medical staff in caring and treating patients.
“However, we need to be alert to the risks of some medicines, particularly when used over a long period of time, and the framework we are publishing today empowers local services to work with people to ensure they are being effectively supported when a medicine is no longer providing overall benefit,” he added.
Health minister Neil O’Brien said tackling the overprescribing of opioids is important. “Some opioids are highly addictive and have the potential to cause significant harm,” he said.