20% of Ontario drug-benefit recipients on prescription opioids

A new study reveals that more than 20 per cent of adults on Ontario's publicly-funded drug benefit plan are taking doctor-prescribed opioids, swelling to nearly 30 per cent in certain regions of the province.

New research reveals painkiller overdoses happening most often in northeastern part of province

More than 20 per cent of the 3.2 million Ontarians eligible for the province's publicly-funded drug benefit plan were prescribed opioids for pain in 2015, according to a new study led by the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network.

More than 20 per cent of adults on Ontario's publicly-funded drug benefit plan are taking doctor-prescribed opioids, swelling to nearly 30 per cent in some parts of the province, says a new study to be released on Thursday.

The study tracks the use of such painkillers as oxycodone and fentanyl in Ontario 

"The rate of opioid users and related adverse events is high across Ontario, and shows considerable variation by region in the province," says the report, by researchers at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES), St. Michael's Hospital and the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network.

They say the data could help public-health officials target parts of the province at highest risk for opioid abuse, and then measure the impact by comparing future statistics.

The following list shows the percentage of Ontario Drug benefit recipients, broken down by region, in 2015:

  • Timiskaming District: 27.6%
  • Haliburton County: 25.9%
  • Niagara Regional Municipality: 25.7%
  • Kawartha Lakes District: 24.6%
  • Brant County: 24.5%
  • Provincial average: 20.5%

The study examined data regarding the 3.2 million people eligible for the Ontario Drug Benefit Plan (ODBP).  It found that 20.5 per cent of them — more than 669,000 people — had been prescribed opioids for pain in 2015.

That prescription rate is slightly higher than figures for the whole population, provided separately to CBC Toronto by the Ministry of Health. They show that 1.9 million Ontarians received opioid prescriptions in the 2015-16 fiscal year, about 17 per cent of the province's adult population.

The research shows that the opioid prescription rate varies from region to region, as do the rates of opioid-related hospital visits and deaths. 

"To me, the significance of this work is its ability to demonstrate that this is not a uniform issue across Ontario," said researcher Tara Gomes, an epidemiologist at St Michael's Hospital in Toronto. 

Tara Gomes, a scientist with the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, is looking at the use of prescription painkillers in the province. (Supplied)

"There are certainly specific regions where there is clustering," Gomes said in an interview with CBC Toronto.  "This gives us better information to tailor our response to the opioid epidemic." 

The researchers found the highest death rates from opioids in the province in 2013 were reported in Timiskaming District, followed by Thunder Bay — in both cases a rate more than four times the provincial average. Those figures include overdose deaths from street drugs such as heroin, not just prescription opioids.

The researchers also broke down the rates of emergency department visits, hospital admissions and deaths related to opioids, for each of the province's health regions, known as Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs).

"This was the first time that we were really able to pull together all this information, put it in the same place, and try to have it as up to date as possible," said Gomes. 

The figures revealed opioid users in the North East LHIN are using emergency rooms and getting admitted to hospital at rates higher than anywhere else in Ontario, about double the provincial average. They also show high rates in the Erie St. Clair and Hamilton-Niagara-Haldimand-Brant regions. 

The study also finds that Thunder Bay has highest rate of people on opioid maintenance therapy, roughly four times the provincial average. The rate is also significantly elevated in Greater Sudbury.