New policies will lead to fewer opioid prescriptions: Health Minister

Newfoundland and Labrador's Health Minister says he expects to see the number of opioids prescribed in the province go down substantially this year, despite increasing last year.

John Haggie says despite increase in prescriptions last year, province on track to reduce

John Haggie says the province is implementing changes that will reduce the number of opioid prescriptions. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador's Health Minister says he expects to see the number of opioids prescribed in the province go down this year, despite last year's rise.

John Haggie's comments come in response to a new study from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) that found N.L. was the only province to see its opioid prescription rates go up from 2016 to 2017.

The CIHI study found a two per cent increase in the number of prescriptions handed out in N.L., while many of the provinces most affected by the opioid crisis  — like Ontario, B.C.,  and Alberta — saw double-digit percentage drops.

But the reason he sees imminent change is the recent implementation of a program that gives doctors and other prescribers the ability to see a patient's full medication profile before they issue a prescription.

"As of the beginning of this month, any doctor who writes a prescription for opioids has to look at the prescription record for opioids for that patient before prescribing another one," Haggie said.

Naloxone, which has become much easier to access since the overdose crisis began, has been distributed throughout many communities in N.L. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

He pointed to British Columbia's success using the program as an indicator it will have a similar effect here. 

"The year they introduced it — in the 12 months following — they saw a significant reduction in the number of prescriptions and the size of prescriptions for opioids."

Haggie added that all new physicians in N.L. are subject to a mandatory safe prescribing course.

'Acted as quickly as we could'

In 2017, 25 people in the province died from accidental drug overdoses, but Haggie said his government has been reacting to the opioid crisis as fast as they can.

He points to the introduction of naloxone kits to the province as an example of that.

"We acted as quickly as we could," the health minister said.

"We've only been in office less than 3 years, I think what you're seeing is a lag from the data, because the data was collected last year but runs from 2016-2017."

Haggie estimated that we might not see up-to-date numbers on the amount of opioids being prescribed until late 2019 or early 2020.