NHS plan to further reduce opioid prescribing

  • Date: 08 March 2023

OPIOID painkiller prescriptions in England have fallen by 8 per cent in the last three years according to NHS data released with publication of a new action plan to “crack down” on the overuse of potentially-addictive medicines.

The new framework for local health and care providers aims to further reduce “inappropriate prescribing of high-strength painkillers and other addiction-causing medicines, like opioids and benzodiazepines, where they may no longer be the most clinically appropriate treatment for patients – and in some cases can become harmful without intervention”.

NHS England intends for the plan to support GPs and clinical pharmacists in providing patients with a “personalised review of their medicines" and making shared decisions about whether a change in treatment is needed. This would include moving patients away from potentially-addictive prescribed drugs, especially in cases where clinical benefit decreases.

A review in in 2017/18 found that one in four adults in England were prescribed benzodiazepines, z-drugs, gabapentinoids, opioids for chronic non-cancer pain or antidepressants. NHS England says that latest data now show that in under three years the number of opioid painkillers prescribed has fallen by 8 per cent, which it estimates has saved nearly 350 lives and prevented more than 2,100 incidents of patient harm.

The numbers of benzodiazepines and sleeping pills (z-drugs) prescribed in England has also fallen by 170,000 (13.9 per cent) and 95,000 (10.2 per cent) respectively since the NHS

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, National Medical Director for NHS England said: “We know that patients who require prescriptions for potentially addictive drugs can become dependent and struggle with withdrawal, and this new action plan helps NHS services to continue positive work in this space having already slashed opioid prescriptions by almost half a million over the last four years.

“The plan gives clear guidance to support patients who no longer need these drugs to provide them with routine medicine reviews and move them on to other, alternative therapies where appropriate, saving both lives and taxpayer money in the process.”

Dr Emily Finch, Chair of the Addictions Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “We know high-strength painkillers and other addiction-causing medicines have the potential to be harmful if patients become dependent on them for a long period of time.

“While antidepressants do not share the addictive properties of known dependence-producing drugs, such as benzodiazepines, it is best to stop them slowly as they can cause both withdrawal symptoms. Clinicians treating someone who is taking antidepressants should regularly review whether they are still providing benefits or might no longer be needed.

“However, it is vitally important that no one suddenly stops taking any medication. If you are worried about your prescription, including any effects on your health, speak to your doctor who can provide advice.”

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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