Very few people have any idea of the extent of prescription pill addiction in Australia. It is a terrifying problem. We are losing more people through prescription medication misuse than through ice. The non-medical use of prescription drugs is 21 times more common than heroin, and one in 10 people on prescription medication will develop some kind of dependency.
When my son, Heath, was caught he was only using medication to try and treat a bad chest infection. He was part-way through filming Doctor Parnassus and was travelling a lot between Vancouver, London and New York. He needed to sleep better and had an Ambien or two to help achieve it – that mix of prescription medication caused Heath to sleep permanently.
That’s when I woke up and began to realise the extent of this problem in Australia. I met people who’d also lost loved ones and been affected as I had. I’ve heard stories of people suffering car or work accidents, or experiencing some kind of trauma to their body, and being prescribed pain medications that cause them to want that medication more and more – they become addicted.
It appears people can feel very comfortable with a medication when their doctor offers it to them. They feel that what they are being prescribed must be safe, that it couldn’t do them any harm, but I’ve continued to hear tragedy on tragedy as a result of prescription pill addictions.
We need to educate everyone about the dangers of misusing prescription drugs. Generations of kids at school know about illegal drugs – but we also need to ensure that they know about the potential risks of prescription medications.
We have a Quit program that has dramatically reduced the number of people who smoke in Australia. Today around 13 per cent of adult Australians smoke – that’s half the number who smoked before 1980. An amazing initiative and achievement.
I remember the government’s Grim Reaper messages that raised awareness of AIDS in 1987. At the moment there are awareness campaigns about the ice scourge. We need that same level of education about prescription medication misuse and we need to start that education young and to make it part of the school curriculum.
We need the doctors who are writing prescriptions to educate their patients, and to support doctors we need a system in place so they can see if a patient is shopping around different clinics and surgeries for prescription pills. New York introduced a real-time monitoring system to do this very thing in 2013. The first day the system went live, around 200 doctor-shoppers were detected. At the moment you can go from one doctor to the next in Australia and build up an armoury of pills.
Real-time monitoring provides doctors an alert on their computer screen so they immediately know what medication a patient has already been issued and they can see if a patient is now asking for the same or similar medication. It raises a red flag and can help identify those people who may be struggling with a prescription medication addiction. It’s a system that helps protect the medical system, GPs, pharmacists and patients. And it’s a system that we need implemented as soon as possible to help save lives.
Kim Ledger is a Patron of ScriptWise, a not-for-profit campaigning for greater awareness of Australia’s silent epidemic of prescription-drug misuse and for a comprehensive real-time monitoring system to identify those at risk.