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Penticton, B.C., doctor spreads message about treating alcohol use disorder with medication

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A family physician in Penticton is sharing his message of hope with people who struggle with chronic alcohol dependency. Dr. Jeff Harries says the majority of patients and care providers don't have access to the latest proven and effective medical treatments for alcohol use disorder. Shelby Thom explains why there is a gap in medical knowledge, and how Dr. Harries is working tirelessly to change that – Nov 26, 2020

A family physician in Penticton, B.C., is sharing his message of hope with people who struggle with chronic alcohol dependency before an ALS diagnosis robs him of his own voice.

Dr. Jeff Harries, who has practiced family medicine for 30 years, founded the Alcohol Use Disorder Society to promote the use of medication as an effective and safe way to treat Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

“With my health in decline, I needed some other way,” he said.

It was in 2003 when Dr. Harries said he read an article in the Lancet about medication that could reduce cravings and help curb addiction to alcohol.

Read more: Harmful alcohol use is on the rise — and experts warn it’s not slowing down

He decided to offer the pill to one of his patients who struggled with severe alcohol dependency for decades, and the results were a game-changer.

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“It was remarkable. Without any detox or further counselling, he stopped drinking,” Dr. Harries said.

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The patient’s miraculous recovery prompted Dr. Harries to re-evaluate how he treated AUD, and it’s been his mission ever since to spread the word.

“When asking someone to stop drinking, it was like asking them to stop breathing. They needed the alcohol,” he said.

The society will help spread Dr. Harries’ message of hope about effective medical treatments, used in conjunction with counselling and other supports, and his call for a more compassionate understanding of Alcohol Use Disorder as a medical condition. Submitted

Prescribing medicinal drugs to treat alcoholism is not a wide-spread practice in the medical profession, he said.

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“There is lots of science, there are lots of policy changes, but there is a gap between that and down on the ground,” Dr. Harries said.

“People in general just don’t believe that AUD is a disorder and can be successfully treated with medications, as well as counselling and the other supports people need.”

Read more: Struggling with an addiction in Canada? These resources can help

As many as 18 per cent of Canadians, ages 15 and older, are affected by AUD in their lifetime, according to Stats Canada.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction says alcohol is one of the most harmful and costly drugs in Canada, associated with an estimated 18,320 deaths in the country and $5.4-billion in health care costs in 2017.

Currently, six medications are available that can ease withdrawal symptoms and provide freedom from cravings, allowing for the work of healing and recovery to take place, he said.

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The medications most often only need to be taken for a few months.

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Izabela Szelest, executive director of the Canadian Alcohol Use Disorder Society, said the approved medications have been around for years, but prescribing them is not being taught in medical school, and pharmaceutical companies don’t promote them.

Read more: 1 glass, not 2 or 3: Study says Canada’s drinking guidelines are too high

“The medications we are talking about, they are generic, and they are widely available, and so there really isn’t a lobby group or pharmaceutical group trying to promote them for their use, and potentially that could be part of the problem,” she said.

She said AUD is a poorly understood chronic disease that affects the brain, but there are remedies.

“We are not trying to do any clinical trials or to prove the efficacy of them because that is not needed. This has been done throughout and these medications have been available.”

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Lori Motluk, a retired nurse and Penticton hospital executive, is chairing the newly formed organization.

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“Initially when Jeff came to me about the medications, I have to admit I was a skeptic. I said to Jeff, ‘Tell me again, a pill can help.’ This is not intended to be a stand-alone treatment,” she said.

Effective medical treatments should be used in conjunction with counselling and other supports, Motluk said.

Aaron McRann, executive director with the Community Foundation of the South Okanagan Similkameen, said it’s taking on the role of incubator to raise funds to support the initiative.

“We have funded millions of dollars of grants in our region over the years, many of those are related to dealing with social issues that are happening in our communities,” he said.

Read more: Alcohol-related deaths remain a ‘silent epidemic’ in Canada: expert

Dr. Harrie’s health is in decline. In April 2018, he was diagnosed with ALS and he is starting to lose his ability to speak.

He said he may not be able to hold his educational talks for clinicians in about a month, so the society will carry on his legacy.

“He’s been tireless. At this point, he’s done over 145 lectures and touched over 4,000 people,” Motluk said. “Jeff has been an icon.”

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Dr. Harries said he is in a race against time to share his knowledge.

“AUD is a disorder that’s treatable. It’s a medical condition, not a moral failing.”

To learn more, visit the Canadian Alcohol use Disorder Society website here. 

The medications are listed in provincial guidelines for the clinical management of high-risk drinking and alcohol use disorder, which can be found here.