Prescription medication can be a hidden addiction, but it has a very real risk, resulting in more deaths than Victoria's road toll. RACHAEL HOULIHAN and REBECCA RIDDLE report.
A higher number of people overdose and die from prescription medication than from illegal drugs or alcohol.
The shocking data comes as the state government is set to launch ScriptSafe to avoid prescription medication-related harm.
Western Region Alcohol and Drug Centre practice nurse Rob Kenna said addiction could happen to anyone.
“We believe if a doctor prescribes opiates, whether for chronic or acute pain, there is always the potential for abuse there,” he said.
“That’s the risk that each doctor has to assess each individual client on its merit at the time.”
He said a lot of people thought it couldn’t happen to them.
“The reality is that it doesn’t discriminate no matter your age, race, sex, social status,” he said.
Mr Kenna said sometimes people may have thought they didn’t have an issue as their doctor had prescribed the medication and it was legal.
“The community has that perception drugs is an issue of heroin or illicit drugs,” he said. “But dependence can come from illicit and legal drugs.”
WRAD director Geoff Soma said alcohol was still the most problematic drug within the region, followed by methamphetamine.
“Prescription medication over the past 12 months represents about three per cent of clients who identify it as a problematic drug,” he said. “It’s significant and it’s on the radar. It’s obviously creating problems for people.”
Mr Soma said the danger was that the longer people used an addictive substance, the more at risk they were of developing dependency.
Mr Soma said ScriptSafe would be a great help for doctors.
“The real-time monitoring gives an opportunity to ensure doctors aren’t over-prescribing or people aren’t having any opportunity to attend a number of doctors. The more it’s regulated the better that is for the individuals,” he said.
He said people recognised alcohol was a problem and illegal drugs cause issues, but prescription medication tended to be something that people weren’t widely aware of. He acknowledged the medication certainly had a purpose, if used short-term and under supervision.
“If people don’t monitor the situation and get the support they need, they can find themselves in trouble over time,” he said.
He said if people identified they may have a problem, they should go to their doctor as the first step.
People may then be referred to WRAD for a small number of sessions, out-patient counselling services, a day program or longer term residential rehabilitation.
He said some people may require an intensive rehab program.
Mr Soma said The Lookout, a proposed 20-bed rehabilitation centre in Dennignton, would provide a facility for south-west people to receive treatment for addiction. He said it was a whole, multi-discipline approach to address addiction.
Tackling doctor shopping
Tony and John have battled drug addiction for most of their lives.
The Warrnambool father and son said their heroin use began when they were both in their early teens.
Speaking at a ScriptWise Health Expo in the city on Wednesday, the pair said they hoped a new real-time prescription monitoring system would potentially save lives.
”Warrnambool was known as the heroin capital of Australia back in the 70s,” Tony said.
“It was everywhere and easy to get hold of. Almost everyone I knew back then was doing it.”
Tony, now aged in his late 50s, said he soon progressed from heroin to methadone.
This forced him to rely on multiple scripts to fuel his addiction.
“I had a mate who was one of the best ‘doctor shoppers’ around,” he said.
"We could get a script in Heywood in the morning, Timboon at midday and Ballarat by late afternoon.
“But I also watched a heap of my mates die because of the stuff.”
Deaths from prescription medication overdoses have now outnumbered the road toll in Victoria five years in a row, ScriptWise figures show.
In 2016 there were 376 deaths caused by overdose in Victoria.
Warrnambool’s figures were described by medical professionals at Wednesday’s expo as “alarming”.
Approximately 75 per cent of overdose deaths in the city between the years 2009 and 2015 involved pharmaceutical medications.
Thirty-two year-old John said he believed he only avoided joining the alarming statistics by overcoming his addiction almost three years ago.
“In November 2015 I stopped using drugs altogether,” he said.
“That was after first trying heroin when I was 14.”
John now works assisting others through addictions.
Tony said he hoped by sharing his own story he could help others in some way.
The pair’s openness kick-started the expo this week aimed at providing insights into how to address underlying health conditions and reduce the use of high-risk medication.
Both Tony and John said they hoped the programs being introduced would save others from the pain of addiction.
SafeScript is a real-time prescription monitoring system alerting pharmacists of possible “doctor shopping”.
SafeScript will be implemented in western Victoria in late October aimed at reducing the growing harms, including deaths, from high-risk prescription medicines such as opioids and benzodiazepines.
Pharmacist joins overdose toll battle
The number of Victorians dying from prescription overdoses has now exceeded the number of road deaths, prompting the introduction of a real-time prescription monitoring system.
The system, known as SafeScript, will be welcomed by Warrnambool pharmacies in late October.
If you've been on opioids or benzodiazepines for more than eight weeks it's probably time to ask what your long-term plan for pain relief is.Josephine McDowall
The city will be among the state’s first to implement the $29.5 million program aimed at reducing the number of deaths caused by prescription medicine overdoses.
The ScriptWise One Too Many initiative is being implemented in support of SafeScript.
Western Victoria Primary Health Network’s Raj Samrai was at Thursday’s event explaining the extent of the situation.
"Fentanyl, Oxycodone, Methadone, Benzodiazepines, these are becoming household names in Australia.
“It think it would be fair to say we are in the midst of a pharmaceutical opioids crisis."
Warrnambool community pharmacist Josephine McDowall said the introduction of SafeScript would hopefully safe guard against addiction.
“Pain-killers are meant to be a short-term solution,” she said.
“If you’ve been on opioids or benzodiazepines for more than eight weeks it’s probably time to ask what is your long-term plan for pain relief.
“Some medications can be addictive. We want to encourage patients to seek a broader health plan to help manage pain or anxiety."