What you need to know about drug recalls

News that the popular heartburn drug Zantac was recalled last week over contamination fears should raise alarm bells about the safety of the drugs we trust, says CBC Information Morning's health-care consultant.

'It's important for us to do some of our own homework,' says health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton

Mary Jane Hampton says Canada's system for notifying the public of drug and medical device recalls is surprisingly vulnerable — although that's about to change. (CBC)

This is part of a series from CBC's Information Morning where Halifax health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton discusses her "health hacks" — ways to make your experience with the health-care system better.

News that the popular heartburn drug Zantac was recalled last week over contamination fears should raise alarm bells about the safety of the drugs we trust, says a Nova Scotia health-care consultant.

Recalls of drugs and medical devices are all too common, but finding out about them is another story, Mary Jane Hampton told CBC's Information Morning. 

"You probably have more likelihood of hearing from Costco about an air conditioner that's broken than you would as a health consumer find out about something wrong with a health product," she said. 

With an estimated 200,000 Canadians ending up in hospital — or worse — every year because of a serious reaction to a drug, Hampton said it's often up to patients to look out for themselves. 

Health consultant Mary Jane Hampton says it's up to families to look out for themselves. (Robert Short/CBC)

Up until now, recalls of drugs and medical devices haven't been well tracked, she said. It means that patients, and doctors, can unknowingly take or prescribe a drug without realizing its potential harm.

Of the 200,000 Canadians affected by a serious drug reaction, 22,000 die each year and more than 5,000 of them are children, Hampton said. 

"It's important for us to do some of our own homework to expose information that may be really a question of life and death," she said. 

While it's still difficult to get information about medical recalls, Hampton said that's starting to change.

The Protecting Canadians from Unsafe Drugs Act — also known as Vanessa's Law — is named after Vanessa Young, the daughter of a member of Parliament who died after complications from taking a drug she was prescribed.

"That exposed a really big concern about how patients, and even doctors, sometimes don't have timely access to information about when prescription drugs have reactions that weren't expected," Hampton said.

New regulations mean harsher penalties

The new regulations, which will come into effect in December, will require health-care institutions to report adverse drug reactions to Health Canada within 30 days. The regulations will also impose stricter penalties for companies that make products that aren't safe. 

Penalties could include jail time, as well fines up to $5 million per day, rather than the current $5,000.

Keeping track of this information will allow Health Canada to keep an eye on any trends and prevent patients from getting hurt, said Hampton.

But even before hospitals begin their mandatory reporting, Hampton said patients can report problems with drugs or medical devices themselves on the Government of Canada website.

For more drug and medical device safety information, Hampton recommends these trusted sources:

With files from CBC's Information Morning


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