Should physicians in Canada be held more accountable for the opioid epidemic?

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

With the opioid epidemic claiming the lives of at least 2,458 Canadians last year, according to an estimate released by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), should we be taking a closer look at prescribing practices?

Health and government officials across the country have been rushing to address the growing overdose “crisis” from drugs such as fentanyl that has swept across Canada.

While there are many reasons behind the cause of the epidemic, the seriousness of the situation has seen some doctors in the U.S. being charged with murder.

READ MORE: Trudeau says Canada not looking to decriminalize harder drugs, experts call that ‘irresponsible’

Physicians in Canada are increasingly being held accountable for their prescribing practices but it has not lead to sanctions such as a murder charge.

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Dr. Todd Watkins is the Managing Director of Physician Services at the Canadian Medical Protective Agency and says that teaching practices for physicians have changed over the years.

“I can tell you that the training now is much much different and there’s been a concerted effort within the medical schools and within the ongoing professional development of physicians that are already in practice to restructure the training and use best evidence to formulate that training.”

LISTEN: Dr. Todd Watkins speaking on CKNW’s, The Jon McComb Show

However, Watkins says there is a responsibility that lies with physicians.

“Physicians have a role to play within their realm of influence to be able to reduce the number of opioids that get prescribed and then ultimately those drugs that make it to the streets.”

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Commonly prescribed to manage severe pain caused by everything from bone fractures to cancer, opioid medications such as fentanyl and oxycodone also produce a feeling of euphoria and are highly addictive.

The use of opioids to treat chronic pain is leading to growing medical-legal difficulties for Canadian doctors, according to the CMPA.

“Faced across the table with a patient who is in pain and who has had chronic pain and everything that they’ve tried to date has not worked, is both difficult for the patient and difficult for the provider who’s trying to help relieve their pain.”

READ MORE: Fentanyl health effects: what happens during and after an overdose

While regulators have been taking a much more active role in prescribing practices of physicians and in particular opioid prescribing, Canada still has a long way to go.

“In Canada, we are the #2 prescriber per capita of opioids in the world and when you look at actual dose of opioids, we are the #1 prescriber.”

So, should physicians in Canada be held more accountable for the opioid epidemic?

“I’m not sure something like [a murder charge] is going to drive the message home, I think the message is already out there. [The regulators] are responsible for regulating the profession and I would say that’s a better way to monitor and measure opioid prescribing in the country and they are playing a role in both education and in regulation.”
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