Doctors prescribing smaller amounts of opioids — but not in New Brunswick

Only three provinces — Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta and Manitoba — are prescribing higher quantities of opioids on average than New Brunswick.

New data shows the province bucking a national painkiller-prescribing trend

New data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows New Brunswick is bucking a national trend by dispensing higher quantities of opioids in 2016, compared to 2012. (The Canadian Press)

Across the country, doctors are writing prescriptions for smaller amounts of addictive painkillers.

But not in New Brunswick.

The province is bucking a national trend that is seeing the quantity of opioids prescribed to Canadians decreasing, according to new data released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information on Wednesday.

Last year, New Brunswickers were prescribed 7.3 days worth of opioids on average.

That's a six per cent increase from 2012.

"The trend that stands out is the continued increase in opioid dispensing in New Brunswick," Jordan Hunt, the institute's manager of pharmaceutical information, said in an interview.

Nationally, Canadians received 6.2 days worth of opioids on average, down nine per cent from 2012.

New national opioid treatment guidelines, along with the province's long-awaited prescription monitoring program, could eventually bring New Brunswick more in line with the rest of the country, Hunt said.

Only three provinces — Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta and Manitoba — are prescribing higher quantities of opioids on average than New Brunswick, the data shows.

"It took a long time for us to get where we are today and there won't be a quick fix," Hunt said.

Nearly 70 people treated for overdoses

Dr. Jennifer Russell, acting chief medical officer of health, says she can't explain why New Brunswick is prescribing more opioids than other provinces. (CBC)

Dr. Jennifer Russell, the acting chief medical officer of health, couldn't explain why New Brunswick doctors are prescribing more opioids than their counterparts in other provinces.

"Regardless of these numbers, our plan is the same," she said in an interview.

"We have the same intention with respect to raising education and awareness for the dangers around opioids and … we are looking at modernizing and revamping our approach to mental health and addictions programming."

A working group has been studying opioid abuse for months, coming up with a strategy to combat opioid it.

But Russell couldn't say what the plan is or when it might be revealed to the public.

New Brunswick reported at least 17 deaths related to opioids between Jan. 1 and June 30 of this year.

Public health officials have also started tracking non-fatal opioid overdoses, gathering the data from hospital emergency rooms and Ambulance New Brunswick.

Sixty-eight people were treated for overdoses in Horizon Health Network hospitals between March 1 and Nov. 11 of this year.

Higher quantities of a deadly drug

Hydromorphone prescribing is up across the country, likely replacing prescriptions for Oxycodone, another addictive opioid pictured in this file photo. (Graeme Roy/Canadian Press)

The Canadian Institute for Health Information report includes prescriptions funded by public programs and private insurance companies.

It also offers a window into the opioids prescribed most often to Canadians.

The most popular opioid in New Brunswick is hydromorphone, also known as Dilaudid.

Between 2012 and 2016, the average daily dose of that drug increased 33 per cent in the province.

It can be a deadly drug. Dilaudid was involved in more fatal, accidental New Brunswick drug overdoses than any other opioid between 2008 and 2016, according to a database kept by CBC News. Dilaudid was involved in 57 fatal overdoses during those years.

Hydromorphone use is up across the country, likely replacing some prescriptions that used to be for Oxycontin, Hunt said.

More education needed

Anthony Knight, CEO of the New Brunswick Medical Society, has said doctors have few resources to treat patients with chronic pain. (CBC)

"Certainly, the trends are not headed in the direction we'd like to see," New Brunswick Medical Society CEO Anthony Knight said on Wednesday.

Part of the solution, he said, is making sure doctors have access to education on how to prescribe.

The medical society has been hosting educational sessions for doctors on the topic, while the College of Physicians and Surgeons has recently launched new guidelines on opioid prescribing.

The medical society has also been working with WorksafeNB to figure out the best strategy to treat injured workers, who could be at risk of becoming addicted to painkillers, Knight said.

"We know that in other provinces we see even higher rates of mortality that are certainly troubling," he said.

"We would not want to see that trend reach our borders here in New Brunswick."

About the Author

Karissa Donkin

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send your tips to

With files from Jack Julian and Shift