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States to feel heat on doctor shopping

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The states are under pressure to detail how they will act on doctor shopping when they report on progress in implementing a national real-time prescription monitoring system at a meeting of the country’s health ministers next month.

More than three years after the Commonwealth, states and territories agreed on a framework for tracking the dispensing of controlled drugs including painkillers and tranquilisers, frustration is mounting that a reporting system is yet to be enacted.

Attempting to inject fresh momentum, Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley last month secured a commitment from the states and territories to report on their progress in implementing the scheme to an Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council meeting scheduled for December.

At last month’s COAG Health Council meeting, the State and Territory ministers agreed to “further progress a national real-time prescription monitoring system that alerts doctors and pharmacists to people who are abusing prescription drugs by doctor or pharmacy shopping”.

The importance of the issue has been underlined by figures showing in 2013 almost 5 per cent of Australians admitted to misusing pharmaceuticals, up from 4.2 per cent in 2010.

Painkillers are the most commonly abused medication. Among adults, 3.3 per cent admitted using them for non-medical purposes, and of these half were using prescribed analgesics.

The scale of the problem is large. The number of opioid prescriptions subsidised through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme jumped from 2.4 million to 7 million in the 15 years to 2007, and between 1997 and 2012 the supply of oxycodone increased 22-fold and fentanyl, 46-fold.

Abuse of such drugs has become the most common cause for people seeking drug and alcohol treatment. A Victorian drug and alcohol counselling service has reported that it receives almost three times as many calls regarding prescription opioids as it does heroin.

Seeking to crack down on doctor and pharmacy shopping, the Federal Government in 2012 finalised the Electronic Recording and Reporting of Controlled Drugs System.

But so far, only Tasmania has rolled it out in their State.

Adrian Rollins