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Dr. Norm Buckley on opioid addiction 35:22

A group of high profile medical and community stakeholders has approved a plan to combat a growing problem: too many people are dying from prescription painkiller abuse in Hamilton.

A group of 50 stakeholders, including medical professionals, police, educators and community groups, gathered in Hamilton Friday to approve a template for action to fight the city’s growing prescription painkiller problem.

The onus now moves to the various group members to take the actions back into their own silos and implement them. While the group does not have the power to enact immediate and sweeping changes, its members do carry considerable influence within their own spheres. That should be enough to start enacting change, says Dr. Norm Buckley, director of Hamilton Health Science’s pain clinics.

“It’ll be an interesting thing to see what the turnaround time is,” he said. “This is a pretty high profile thing.”

Getting all of those people in one room and set on the idea of creating change is a major accomplishment, says Dr. Buckley. “This is a really broad group of people but they all agree that this is a complex social problem,” he said.

And that problem is growing. According to statistics obtained by CBC Hamilton from the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Information System, admission rates for local opioid withdrawal programs are now the second highest in the province, behind northern Ontario.

In 2002, one in 10 people who entered a withdrawal management program at St. Joseph’s Healthcare was an opioid patient. In 2012, the rate was one in four. The number of female opioid withdrawal patients at St. Joseph's is more than double the provincial average.

As well, opiate deaths make up over half of all acute drug-related deaths in the city, according to the coroner’s office. Years ago, heroin was the most common opioid doctors saw. Now, it’s prescription pills.

The group’s plan contains dozens of ways to help curb the problem. Some highlights include:

  • Creating a widely available pharmacy information system
  • Reporting suspected prescription abusers to Crime Stoppers
  • Prescribing the drug Naloxone, which can be used to save people from overdosing in an emergency
  • Encouraging returns of unused medication
  • Notifying physicians when drugs they’ve prescribed become part of a legal case

It’s an important list that could help save lives, said Sgt. Jo-Ann Savoie, a Hamilton police representative at Friday’s meeting. “There’s a role for us here,” she said. “It’s a good thing for us to be doing.”

But as police are the enforcement arm of the problem, the real key lies in the community response to find the roots of the problem and snuff it out, she says. “Because in the end, it’s not for us to tell the community how to solve their problems,” she said. “It’s bigger than that. It’s a community thing.”

Communication between agencies was the biggest common issue raised by all agencies at the meeting, Buckley says. Under the guise of “privacy concerns” to protect patients and the law enforcement process, many organizations are reluctant to release any information about a person involved in a drug case or abuse situation.

Under current guidelines, if someone is convicted of trafficking prescription medication and Buckley’s name is on the bottles, he wouldn’t be called unless he was part of the investigation.

“And right now, if a patient of mine dies, I almost never hear from the coroner,” Buckley said. That’s part of what he’s hoping to change.