Opioid situation in the UK is ‘not simple’, says RCGP

Publication date: 27 August 2019

Responding to a Sunday Times investigation into rising numbers of opioids prescriptions alongside increasing death rates from oxycodone and fentanyl – as well as news reports today of pharmaceutical company Johnson and Johnson are facing legal action for their role in the ‘opioid crisis’ in the US, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said:

“The opioid situation in the UK is not simple but the NHS - particularly general practice – actually makes it quite difficult for patients to get repeated prescriptions for opioids in increasing doses, but unfortunately, they are too easily accessible illicitly – and GPs have little control over that.

“It is always tragic to hear of drug-related deaths - but it is unclear as to whether these are a result of drugs being prescribed legally, or obtained illegally.

“Oxycodone and fentanyl are some of the strongest opioid-based painkillers available, and GPs will only prescribe them with great caution after considering all physical, psychological and social factors potentially impacting on a patient’s health, and in line with current clinical guidelines. We also aim to fully discuss the risks and benefits of taking opioids with the patient - including the potential for addiction - before prescribing them.

“Opioids should be prescribed at the lowest possible dose for the shortest possible time. GPs don’t want patients to be taking opioids long-term, and most patients don’t want this either, but for some patients, these drugs are the only thing that helps ease their severe pain.

“It is frustrating for all involved that there are so few alternative effective treatments available for chronic pain. We know that moderate levels of exercise can help but for some people, even this is not possible - and non-pharmacological options that do exist are often hard to access at a community level.

"There is a clear need for more high-quality research into pain, and more clinical guidelines for GPs and other healthcare professionals around treating pain, and using opioids - and it is welcome that NICE are developing these. We also need to see better-funded NHS services for people who do become addicted to opioids.”

Further Information

RCGP Press office: 020 3188 7633/7574/7575
Out of hours: 0203 188 7659

Notes to editor

The Royal College of General Practitioners is a network of more than 53,000 family doctors working to improve care for patients. We work to encourage and maintain the highest standards of general medical practice and act as the voice of GPs on education, training, research and clinical standards.

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