International overdose awareness day: new resources to support prescription opioid safety

31 Aug 2020

August 31 marks International Overdose Awareness Day; a global event aimed at raising awareness of overdose and reducing the stigma associated with drug-related deaths.

Overdose and drug-related deaths are often attributed to illicit drug use, such as heroin and crystal methamphetamine (ice), making them the focal point of prevention and education strategies. Yet over the past two decades, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of deaths worldwide from prescription opioid use. Opioid-related deaths have almost doubled in Australia in the decade since 2007, with two out of three deaths involving prescription opioids, not heroin.

A recent study by Turning Point researchers reviewed existing training materials for pharmacists and found a lack of resources available to support them in engaging with patients who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain about overdose prevention. Researchers interviewed people prescribed opioids for chronic pain and pharmacists who dispensed these opioids and discovered there was no consistent understanding on what the term ‘overdose’ meant, meaning that current communication approaches are likely to be ineffective.

“Those we spoke to held diverse views about the meaning and definition of overdose, which suggests there isn’t a clear understanding of what prescription opioid overdose is,” said Associate Professor Suzi Nielsen.  

“Many people believed that overdose means taking too much, and were not aware that overdose can happen because of interactions with other drugs or changes in health.”

Pharmaceutical opioids commonly prescribed for chronic pain include codeine, oxycodone and tapentadol, with many patients prescribed opioids unaware of the role of naloxone – a drug used to reverse the effects of opioids. Most pharmacists had also never offered naloxone to patients prescribed opioids for pain, citing overdose as a low priority and a lack of tools available to support conversations with patients about its use.

These findings have led to the development of a range of resources to encourage conversations on opioid safety. The materials include a poster and a five-minute animation for pharmacists outlining how to talk about opioid safety, including how to identify patients most at risk and how to introduce naloxone. 

“We know that this can be a sensitive topic to discuss with patients so we have designed the materials so pharmacists can tailor discussions depending on the patient and the relationship they have with them,” said Associate Professor Nielsen. 

An easy to use quick-reference leaflet and three-minute animation has been designed for patients focusing on naloxone as a strategy for safety, including an opioid safety plan. 

“Through the research, it was clear that recent initiatives to reduce harms from prescription medicines have inadvertently led to people who are prescribed opioids feeling stigmatised. With this in mind, we designed the new materials to empower patients to discuss and plan for opioid safety with their pharmacist.”

The new materials are an important tool in educating pharmacists and patients on the use of naloxone for pharmaceutical opioids, and as part of a broader solution to reduce opioid-related deaths.  

The materials have been designed in collaboration with the researchers from the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia and Monash Addiction Research Centre, with the study funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

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