Patch-for-patch program aimed at reducing fentanyl abuse

A simple exchange program is helping local doctors and pharmacists keep track of a potentially dangerous prescription narcotic, and one area physician is calling for its possible expansion.
An opiate user holds a bag that he says contains a powdered version of the powerful painkiller. (CBC)

A simple exchange program is helping local doctors and pharmacists keep track of a potentially dangerous prescription narcotic, and one area physician is calling for its possible expansion.

For the last year, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, local pharmacists and physicians have required patients to return their patches before getting a refill. If patches are missing, or show signs of tampering, patients won't get their refill.

"It's been in Windsor for less than one year, so we're looking at increasing its use throughout the Windsor-Essex medical community," said Dr. Amrit Bagga, the chief nephrologist at Windsor Regional Hospital. 

While the patch-for-patch program is too new to show any results in Windsor-Essex, similar programs have been successful in other areas, Bagga said.

"It's really simple," Bagga said, "Anyone using [fentanyl] appropriately would have no issue with that. Fortunately, most fentanyl use is appropriate but there are situations where it's inappropriate."

Bagga, who is also the vice president of the Essex County Medical Society, said prescription narcotics — like fentanyl — are extremely harmful.  

"It was shocked initially when I heard about the number of narcotic deaths," Bagga said.

Used patches can be abused 

Fentanyl, generally prescribed to patients in severe pain, is delivered through a skin patch that releases the medicine over three days. It's estimated to be 80 times more potent than morphine and 40 times more powerful than heroin.

A used patch is not completely medicine-free, so it can be abused if it's not disposed of properly.

"Even when it's completely used and you toss [the patch] out and put it in the garbage, there's still some active drug in it," Dr. Tim O'Callahan, the president of the Essex County Medical Society. "People have been abusing that drug."

Opioid deaths rising

Fentanyl is classified as an opioid, a type of drug responsible for 655 deaths in Ontario in 2013. Other opioids include heroin, methadone, morphine and oxycodone. 

The number of opioid-related deaths, emergency-room visits and hospitalizations have been rising since the early 2000s, according to the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit.  

The number of people who died due to opioid toxicity each year in Windsor and Essex County has more than doubled in recent years. In all of 2007, there were 15 deaths due to opioid toxicity, by 2013 that number rose to 33.