All party group lobbies PHE for prescription drug helpline

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The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Prescribed Drug Dependence has set out its case for a national helpline for people struggling to withdraw from prescription drugs such as opioid-based painkillers, tranquilisers and anti-depressants. Prescribing for the latter has risen by more than 500 per cent since 1992, says the APPG.

Up to 10m people in the UK are taking benzodiazepines, sleeping pills, antidepressants or other psychiatric medications at any one time, says the group, while 10m people a year also receive opiate painkiller prescriptions. ‘It is therefore proposed that the government should fund a national helpline to provide support and advice for this group of patients, most of whom have become dependent simply because they followed their doctor’s advice,’ it states.

A declaration of support for the proposed 24-hour helpline has been signed by leading medical bodies including the royal colleges of GPs, physicians and psychiatrists, while a recent meeting of the APPG heard from researchers at the University of Roehampton that around 770,000 long-term users of anti-depressants in England could be taking the drugs unnecessarily, at a cost to the NHS of £120,000 per day. Researchers also found that more than 250,000 people were taking benzodiazepines and ‘z drugs’ for more than six months, far beyond the NICE-recommended limit of two to four weeks.

The response of doctors and psychiatrists to prescription drug dependence varies widely, states the APPG, but is characterised by a ‘lack of awareness and relevant training’. The absence of specialist NHS support means that those with dependency issues are reliant on small, struggling independent charities for help, several of which have had to close through lack of funding. The proposed helpline would be low-cost and could provide appropriate support during withdrawal as well as help with symptom management, says the APPG.

‘Long-term users of antidepressants, tranquilisers and opioid painkillers can suffer devastating effects when they try to withdraw, often leading to years of unnecessary suffering and disability,’ said APPG chair Paul Flynn MP. ‘And yet – unlike illicit drugs – there are hardly any dedicated services to support them. The cost of unnecessary antidepressant and tranquiliser prescribing is now estimated at £60m a year in England alone. We therefore urge Public Health England to set up a national helpline to support individuals wishing to withdraw from these drugs, and to reduce the tremendous cost to patients’ lives and the public purse.’

PHE’s director of alcohol, drugs and tobacco, Rosanna O’Connor has agreed to consult with colleagues about the proposal, the APPG has announced.

Call for national helpline to support patients affected by prescribed drug dependence (PDD) report at prescribeddrug.org