How ‘safe’ drugs are killing too many Australians
WHEN Rebecca Fraser developed a prescription medication addiction in her late teens, her mum and sister knew they had to act.
They needed to save her from the doctors who they believed could, unwittingly, cause her serious harm through their prescription of painkillers - especially if Rebecca went doctor shopping around Perth.
The family moved from Perth to a small WA town where there were just two medical surgeries and one chemist. It was supposed to be a fresh start - but instead her sister Meghan watched Rebecca's addiction spiral.
Rebecca was 32 and working part-time as the receptionist of a motel. Her mum found her when she died in 2012.
Meghan says: "She was on the couch, phone still in her hand, TV on, handbag next to her. She was so highly sedated that she just stopped breathing."
Rebecca's story reflects a growing problem. A report released this week by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) shows that the rate of opioid-induced deaths has almost doubled in the last decade in Australia.
"The toxicology report showed Beck had six prescription medications in her system - and all within therapeutic levels" Meghan says.
"No alcohol or drugs."
For Meghan, the solution is a better focus on mental health.
"A compulsory psychologist appointment should be a prerequisite to access the pills. Otherwise you're just using a pill as a Band-Aid, not addressing the real problem."
The doctor who prescribed the medication to Rebecca was investigated by AHPRA but no action was taken against him.
Sandra McGivern, who runs hair salons in Sydney and the Gold Coast, has had a similarly harrowing experience. Her son Angus, 27, died in November last year.
Sandra has a Change.org petition calling for fentanyl, which is 100 times more potent than morphine, to be a restricted drug. In the six years to 2016, there was a 1800 per cent increase in Australian fentanyl deaths.
In her petition, which has 18,000 signers, Sandra writes: "Angus battled his addiction for eight years, but GPs prescribed him this lethal drug over and over again until it killed him."
Days after he died, Sandra discovered that 13 different doctors had prescribed Angus fentanyl.
"I want fentanyl to be restricted so doctors can't prescribe it 'til they get the phone call okaying it. This stops the doctor shopping," Sandra says.
Sandra will run Sydney's overdose awareness day in Centennial Park on August 31. It will be opened by Sydney Mayor Clover Moore and Dr Tim Green, Emergency Department director at the Royal Prince Albert Hospital.
"This'll be a day to remember those we've lost and demand action," Sandra says. "This change is urgent and affects all Australians."
Christine Campbell's son Benjamin, 28, died in 2015 from accidental overdose of fentanyl. He'd battled Valium addiction for years after a doctor prescribed it to him for anxiety when he was just 15.
"I've been watching this problem grow ever since we lost Benjamin," Christine says. "Illicit drug use is well reported, but prescription drug addiction is not. It's often hidden."
Benjamin's Valium use spiralled while he was still a teen.
"He ended up taking 25 Valium in one go because it took him that many just to feel 'normal'," Christine says.
Desperate for help, Christine approached doctors around the WA town of Merredin and begged them to stop prescribing Valium to her teenage son, after she found drugs issued on the same day by doctors.
"'Speak to your son,' they'd say to me" Christine says. "They wouldn't speak to me because of patient confidentiality."
Christine sent photocopies of scripts and pictures of countless pill bottles and sent them to Medicare. She felt powerless.
"They did nothing" she says. "The police could do nothing. No laws were being broken.
"It was such a waste. Benjamin was always looking out for people or animals," she says, remembering the time he rescued an echidna from the road. "He was so active - he could jump a fence a metre high."
"But when his prescription addiction took hold, he lost his two children," she says.
"One is still in custody of my youngest daughter. This made his depression worse. It took one injection of fentanyl to kill him, days after his eldest daughter's birthday."
One of the problems was how persuasive Benjamin became to doctors and his parents.
"Addicts become manipulators," Christine says. "They can convince innocent doctors. Benjamin would say, 'Mum, I'm seeing doctors, they're prescribing me what I need. It's OK Mum.' And it wasn't OK."
Everyone interviewed for this piece called for real time prescription monitoring as a solution. That would allow doctors and pharmacists to log into a live system and see whether the patient had tried to have medicine prescribed or purchased elsewhere.
It's something the AMA supports.
Dr Richard Kidd, chair of the AMA Council of General Practice and Chair of Scriptwise, said the new upswing in overdose deaths wasn't surprising.
"We've been concerned for a long time. Coroners across Australia are calling for more to be done - particularly real time prescription monitoring."
Real time monitoring only exists is in Tasmania.
Dr Kidd says: "The AMA disagrees with Health Minister Greg Hunt when he says real time monitoring is a state issue. We strongly believe there needs to be a seamless, integrated, national real-time monitoring service. Otherwise, mayhem happens at the borders."
Dr Kidd says My Health Record wouldn't address this problem.
"It's opt out, meaning the very people we're trying to help from themselves - doctor shoppers - would be the first to opt out so they don't get tracked."
"It's also not live and not being analysed so it's not the solution for this problem," he says.
He also doesn't believe drugs like fentanyl should be restricted to prescriptions by specialists.
"I see lots of people dying from prescription misuse. Some years it's higher than the road toll. But restricting prescription would be a disaster for palliative patients, taking us back to a third world situation. We don't have nearly enough chronic pain specialists to do that."
Education is a better solution, he says.
"This is somewhere we've been failing our patients. They need written advice that helps them understand they need to reduce painkillers as their pain reduces, or face very high risk of addiction.
"We need to better educate doctors, linking that in with tools like real time prescription monitoring."
- Continue the conversation with Gary Nunn on Twitter @garynunn1