Canada, amongst other countries, is facing an opioid crisis. According to federal data, more than 14,000 Canadians have died due to opioids in the last four years.
Pre-pandemic opioid statistics were looking promising, with the number of opioid related deaths down by almost one quarter in Alberta in 2019. Unfortunately, the opioid crisis is now worse than ever. In British Columbia, there were 728 deaths of drug overdoses in the first six months of 2020. Although Alberta has been slow to release information to the public regarding drug overdoses, in March there were 60 opioid-related deaths, a significant increase from the 43 deaths reported in January and 39 deaths reported in February.
According to emergency medical call data in Alberta, there were 550 opioid-related calls in May. This is triple the number of calls from both January and February of earlier this year.
To put some of these statistics into perspective, as of August 20, 2020, COVID-19 has killed 230 Albertans. In just the first three months of 2020, opioids were found to have killed 142 Albertans.
WHAT ARE OPIOIDS?
Opioids are medications that can relax the body and have pain relieving properties. They can be purchased at the pharmacy to treat minor aches and pains or prescribed by a doctor to relieve medium to severe pain.
Opioids can affect your mind, mood and mental processes, producing euphoria, or a “high” feeling, which often leads them to be used improperly. The following are examples of opioids that can be prescribed medications:
- Hydromorphone; and,
- Medical heroin.
Dependency, substance use disorder and overdose are serious side effects and risks of using opioids. They have the potential for problematic use because they produce a “high” feeling.
Opioids should only be taken as prescribed, never be used by someone for whom it was not prescribed and never be taken with alcohol or other medication (except as prescribed).
Individuals prescribed with opioids are advised never to share their medication, and are cautioned to store their medication in a safe and secure place and out of reach from children and teenagers. Any unused opioid medication should be returned to a pharmacy for safe disposal to prevent the possibility of illegal use and protect the environment from contamination.
PHYSICIANS FACE CHALLENGES SURROUNDING THE PRESCRIPTION OF OPIOIDS
The most common reason that Canadians seek health care is due to pain, and one out of every five adults in Canada experience chronic pain. Opioids, such as codeine, oxycodone and hydromorphone, are typically prescribed by doctors to treat pain. When prescribed and used appropriately, opioids have a therapeutic purpose, are effective and help with pain management. However, their challenging use cannot be overlooked. In some cases, opioids can lead to addiction, poisoning and sometimes death.
Opioids not only help to mask physical pain, but they can also dull feelings of anxiety and depression. Opioids work by releasing dopamine, inducing a high or feeling of euphoria. They often offer a temporary escape for those dealing with mental health challenges.
Many become addicted to opioids that were first prescribed by their doctor to deal with a legitimate medical issue. Unfortunately, those that become addicted are often reluctant to seek treatment due to the stigma associated with addiction and feelings of shame.
Prescribing opioids is clearly a challenge for physicians given the crisis and increasing overdoses in our country. It is critical that a positive doctor-patient relationship is developed and doctors take an individualized approach for each patient in order to prescribe and treat effectively.
Doctors treating patients with pain need to look for potential risk factors for substance abuse, such as a personal or family history of other types of substance abuse or psychiatric disorders. Those patients with these red flags should not be automatically denied opioids, but should be informed of the risk of dependence and closely monitored for potential abuse.
Medical professionals have a duty to their patients and are accountable when their negligent prescribing practices lead to patient harm or death. If a doctor is prescribing highly addictive opioid pain medication in a manner which harms a patient or is not indicated for the patient’s symptoms or conditions, this can be considered medical malpractice. Failing to warn a patient of the risks posed by opioids or not properly monitoring a patient’s progress while taking medication may also be considered medical malpractice.
OPIOIDS OBTAINED ILLEGALLY
Some opioids are prescribed by doctors. However, opioids have become increasingly available through the illegal drug trade in Canada. Fentanyl (a type of opioid) is often mixed with other street drugs, such as heroin, and packaged into fake pills.
In Canada, the majority of those that have accidently died as a result of opioids (72%) have involved fentanyl, a highly potent and addictive opioid. Fentanyl is considered up to 100 times stronger than morphine and is often mixed into opioids sold on the street. Therefore, users do not know the potency of the drugs that they are ingesting.
RISING NUMBER OF OPIOID OVERDOSES IN CANADA DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Canada continues to have an opioid crisis on its hand. COVID-19 has not helped the situation.
As our attention focuses on the mounting death toll plaguing our country and the entire world related to COVID-19, the numbers of those overdosing from opioids in Alberta is also on the rise.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, has recently brought the frightening nationwide trend to the attention of the public. Canadians addicted to opioids are increasingly at risk, especially those isolating at home. Feelings of stress, uncertainty, social isolation, and loss of access to services may also be contributing to the rising overdoses in Canada.
Those individuals who were actively using drugs at the beginning of the pandemic may be increasing their consumption. Those that were in recovery may have begun using drugs again, especially if they have encountered losses related to the pandemic or the loss of supports that they once had as a result of the pandemic.
Dr. Tam suggests that to reduce the number of opioid deaths we require increasing access to a safer supply of drugs and building more supervised consumption sites. Other political coalitions are lobbying for the decriminalization of illegal drugs which would stop the stigma surrounding those Canadians suffering from addiction.
If you or a family member has been seriously injured by a prescription error related to opioids and you would like to examine your options under the law, please contact the experienced and skilled medical malpractice lawyers at Cuming & Gillespie LLP.
Our team of lawyers will investigate your case, consult with medical experts and advise you on the best course of action. Please call Cuming & Gillespie LLP today at 403-571-0555 or contact us online to book a free consultation. We look forward to helping you obtain the compensation that you deserve.