The federal government needs to do "much more" to tackle Canada's opioid abuse epidemic, Health Minister Dr. Jane Philpott told drug policy experts at a June 17 meeting in Toronto.
"In British Columbia and Alberta, we're seeing more people dying from opioid overdoses than from automobile accidents," she said at the second National Conference on Charting the Future of Drug Policy in Canada. "This is nothing short of a public health crisis."
Philpott outlined five areas where the federal government can and should lead the response to this crisis.
"We will be proceeding with regulatory changes to require opioids to have standard warning stickers and patient information sheets that clearly describe addiction and overdose risks," said Philpott.
She also noted the importance of educating very young children to make good decisions (without resorting to "fear mongering").
2. Monitoring prescribers
Canada Health Infoway will work with the provinces and territories to develop a prescription monitoring program to track overprescribing and influence prescriber behaviours.
In the United States, "there's been a 30% reduction in the rate of prescribing opioids after these programs have been introduced," Philpott said. "We ought to be able to do just as well."
Philpott acknowledged that doctors often face strong pressure from patients to prescribe opioids. "This was one of the hardest things that our new family medicine residents had to deal with and the area where they felt the least prepared," she said.
Health Canada is reviewing the guidance it provides physicians in opioid monographs, and the government may mandate drug companies to develop risk management plans for certain opioids.
Philpott is also considering regulatory changes to require prescriptions for low-dose codeine painkillers that are currently available over the counter.
4. Broadening treatment options
The health minister has asked Health Canada to review non-opioid painkillers more quickly.
Health Canada will also expedite the review of a nasal spray version of the anti-overdose drug naloxone. "It's a more user-friendly version that could be available hopefully before the end of the year," Philpott said.
5. Improving the evidence base
The Canadian Institutes for Health Research will assemble experts to advise on improving the evidence available to drug policy makers, and Philpott will host a summit on opioid use in the fall to identify priorities for further action.