Bring drug overdose plan to B.C. interior

To reduce drug overdose deaths, Vancouver Coastal Health authority plans to track patients to make sure they are taking their prescribed opioids.

image: IFL Science

I may seem odd that lives can be saved by making sure that patients take one opioid (Methadone) so that they don’t die from another (fentanyl). But that’s what statistics show. If patients stay on Methadone they’re more likely to be alive a year later.

It’s the first program of its kind in Canada and the latest effort to turn the tide on the opioid crisis that is projected to kill 1,500 British Columbians (Globe and Mail, Sept. 15, 2017). That’s up from 914 in 2016.

The problem is that patients have hectic lifestyles that make daily prescriptions difficult to take. As a result, only one-third are still on Methadone after a year. Laura Shaver, board member of the B.C. Association for People on Methadone, supports the plan:

“I would think it would be a great idea for many people that are, you know, a little bit unstable, for them to have a bit of a push behind them. With a bit of support, things could be a lot different.”

Rolando Barrios, assistant director at the Vancouver Coastal Health, sets his goal at 95 per cent Methadone compliance:

“We may not achieve that, but think about doubling the 30 per cent to 60 per cent . . . and the impact that would have.”

Tracking Methadone patients is labour intensive. The unregimented lifestyles of drug addicts make it difficult for them to make daily appointments. Starting this month, 20 teams, each comprising of three health professionals, will check on 3,000 patients to make sure they are taking their drugs.

Pharmacists will alert the teams if patients have not taken their daily dose. The team will then phone or visit the patient to check up. Participation in the program is voluntary: the teams are not policing patients.

The plan is modeled on the highly successful program to stop HIV/AIDS launched in 2010. It actively sought untreated HIV-positive people and followed up with an antiretroviral therapy. As a result, the transmission of AIDS was reduced by 96 per cent.

“With HIV,” says Dr. Barrios, “we used to wait until people had low immune systems before they started treatment . . . and then science came in and said we need to treat them earlier and faster. We learned that we needed to be aggressive.”

If the plan is so good for Vancouver, why isn’t it being applied throughout the province? Vancouver’s drug deaths may make news but the problem is worse in B.C.’s interior on a per capita basis.

Kamloops is bad -40 people died of drug overdoses in 2016- but Kelowna is worse. Kelowna led all Canada in per capita opioid poisoning hospitalizations. Vancouver was 16th. Kamloops didn’t make the top twenty but the program is needed here.

The Interior Health Authority needs to match the efforts of Vancouver Coastal Health. Users of prescription opioids need to be monitored. Only by reaching out will the death rate be brought down.

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Double-dipping and wait times

Doctors are to blame for double-dipping but not for the long wait times in B.C.

image: Global news

Rosalia Guthrie of Salmon Arm found out the hard way about double-dipping. After waiting for 16 months, her surgeon’s secretary gave her the number of another clinic. To her surprise, she discovered that the other clinic was run by the same surgeon –and that she would have to pay.

Guthrie paid $500 to get in the door of the private clinic and another $3,850 for a written report. She didn’t have to pay for the actual surgery. That was covered by health care and only one-tenth of what she paid. The surgeon was paid $410.67 for the surgery done in a public hospital at UBC.

The surgeon did a number of things wrong. Double-dipping is illegal. That’s where doctors bill both the patient and the province for different aspects of the same treatment. And doctors are forbidden from charging patients for reports while advising patients on publicly-insured treatment. Also, the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons dictates that before referring patients to clinics, doctors must disclose if they have a financial interest. The surgeon did have a share in the clinic where Guthrie was treated and that wasn’t disclosed.

Doctors are not to blame for long wait times. That blame for that lies squarely at the feet of the government of British Columbia. The BC Liberals have failed to provide access to operating rooms for surgeons says Judy Darcy, the NDP spokesperson for health:

There are operating rooms that sit idle, MRIs that sit idle for many hours of the day. We need to invest in innovation to use our capacity to the maximum.”

If hospitals can’t provide operating room times for doctors, the province should build public clinics I argued earlier. There is no shortage of doctors; there is a shortage of operating rooms for them to work. In a survey done by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, 208 fully trained specialists -16 per cent of those surveyed- were under-employed because “. . .there aren’t enough ORs.”

Some doctors contend that, while they may be doing something illegal, they are relieving patient suffering. Patients may lose their jobs while waiting or they may become addicted to pain-killing opioids.

Private clinics are expensive. Doctors can’t run them without charging patients. Dr. Ross Outerbridge, The founder of the Kamloops Surgical Centre, explains: “We factored in all the cost and a reasonable profit margin and that is what we charge the private patients.” But the whole realm of private clinics is unregulated. “I know that at other clinics, they overcharge,” says Dr. Outerbridge. ” I don’t personally agree with that – but it is very difficult, because nothing is being done about it.”

The BC Liberals have balanced the provincial budget by underfunding health care. British Columbia has the largest number of private clinics in Canada. While we are paying fewer taxes, we are likely paying more for health care when the cost of private clinics is factored in.

Yes, taxes would be higher but public clinics would be better than the illegal, unregulated, Wild West of bootleg medicine sold on the side of public medical practice.

 

 

The problem is doctor distribution, not shortage

The number of doctors in Canada is increasing faster than population growth says Dr. Michael Rachlis on CBC Radio’s The Current:

  photo: Nancy Bepple

“We’ve been increasing the number of physicians at about three per cent per year for the last 10 years and the population is only going up at one per cent per year.”

Another of the panellists on the program, Dr. Danielle Martin, author and VP at Women’s College Hospital, warns of a surplus of doctors:

“In fact you know in some parts of the healthcare system, people are worried about a glut and you hear stories of people coming out [of medical schools] and being unable to find a job.”

That’s certainly not the view from the streets of Kamloops. NDP candidate Nancy Bepple regularly visited lines of people lined up at a clinic to see a doctor. An estimated 30,000 Kamloopsians don’t have a family doctor (one-third of the population). In B.C. overall, it’s 15 per cent.

Why can’t people find doctors if there’s so many of them? Are they hiding?

Well, some of them have chosen to work for a salary rather than billing for each patient. They work exclusively in hospitals says Dr. Chris Pengilly of Victoria, another of the panellists. He calls them “hospitalists.”

They prefer to work only 40 hours a week. Who can blame them? And they are paid better. At $150 an hour, a hospitalist makes $300,000 a year with no overhead. After paying staff and rent, a family doctor would have to earn $400,000 a year, to take home that much; and work longer hours with less support.

The choice is obvious says Dr. Pengilly:

“So anybody coming out of medical school with a big student loan, which do you think they’re going to go for? A family physician [with] no time in hours a week or a hospitalist 40 hours a week and $300,000 with minimal expenses?”

Furthermore, hospitalists don’t want to work alone says Dr. Rachlis “Well, I say good for them that they’re looking to work in teams with other groups, with other physicians.”

One-half of Canada’s physicians focus on sports medicine or palliative care, says Dr. Martin:

“. . .they’re not practicing what we would think of as full scope full service cradle-to-grave primary care family medicine, and that is what those people who are lining up at Dr. Pengilly’s clinic and asking [for a primary caregiver].”

The current model is not working because doctors no longer want to work in the silos of a fee-for-service practice.

It’s ironic that the provincial government has created a hospital environment which doctors prefer to work but one that removes them from the general public.

The solution is obvious but the BC Liberals have been slow to implement it: Build walk-in clinics and hire doctors on a salary basis. Everyone, doctors and patients alike, will be happier.

It’s going to cost more because the government will own the clinics. But the alternative, privately-built clinics, is a failure. The reason that two walk-in clinics in North Kamloops closed their doors is because doctors don’t want to work for less in an environment where they don’t have the same support that hospitalists enjoy.

Opioid use rises despite crisis

Am I the only one not surprised that the opioid crisis has worsened? Despite the widespread distribution of naloxone kits to save lives from fentanyl overdose. Despite increased prescriptions of methadone to treat addiction.

       opium den

It’s all so predictable. The fuse to the opioid bomb was lit long ago.

I just finished reading Dan Malleck’s thoroughly researched book When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine, and the Origins of Canada’s Drug Laws. He traces the opioid crisis that gripped young Canada at the turn of the twentieth century and led to the Opium Act of 1908.

As now, the problem wasn’t the “recreational” use of opium, but rather the prescribed and drug store concoctions of opium. Laudanum, a tincture of opium, was commonly found in medicine chests to treat toothaches and diarrhea, and as a cough suppressant.

Opium was, and still is, a powerful drug in a doctor’s medicine bag. It was especially useful to treat the illnesses of urbanization before the advent of antibiotics; diseases such as dysentery, cholera, and tuberculosis. Even today, nothing surpasses it as a pain killer.

As now, the crisis then was triggered by drugs other than opium. Cocaine had been introduced as a pain killer. The effect on users was startling different than that of opium and its sister morphine. The concept of “drug fiends” didn’t exist until cocaine came on the scene. Now the term easily applies to crystal meth addicts. Charles Heebner, Dean of the Ontario College of Pharmacy commented in 1906 that the public alarm over drug users was non-existent until “the Cocaine Monster came upon the arena . . . Cocaine proved to be a far more enslaving drug than opium or morphine (p.199 of Malleck’s book).”

The politics of the opium scare were quite different than the reality of the problem. Whereas the medical problem was opium addiction and the crazed effect of cocaine, the politics dwelt on the anti-Asian sentiment, especially in B.C.

Nineteen hundred and eight was a federal election year and Prime Minister Laurier was looking for his fourth majority in a row. In response to “race riots” in Vancouver, Laurier sent his minister of labour, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to Vancouver to investigate.

King found that Chinese workers had been brought to British Columbia to build the railway and there now 16,000 Chinese immigrants and their decedents which amounted to eight per cent of the population of B.C. White Canadians claimed they were taking jobs away. Chinese Canadians were demonized for leading good, white, Canadian women astray in “opium dens.” The Chinese were perfect scapegoats: too many, too shady. Laurier played the race card and was returned to power in 1908.

One hundred and eight years later, nothing much has changed. The opioid problem is characterized by sensational news coverage of ordinary Canadians, many of them in the prime of their lives, being killed in alarming numbers by overdosing on fentanyl.

However, the root of the problem is not the recreational use of opioids but the prescription of opioids by doctors. “Prescriptions for hydromorphone have soared 57 per cent over the past five years (Globe and Mail, March 27, 2017).”

And predictably, the more opioids that are prescribed, the more Canadians get hooked. The problem is compounded as users get habituated and require increased dosages for them to work. So they turn to multiple doctors to get them. Failing that, they turn to the streets and the deadly fentanyl.

The problem is not recent -it’s been going on for generations according to the Globe and Mail. “The problem is particularly challenging for new doctors who have inherited patients on high-dose opioids from a colleague who has retired.”

It feels like 1908 all over again.

 

Stem cell centre coming to Kamloops?

My curiosity was sparked when I read that a stem cell centre was opening in Kamloops (Kamloops This Week, March 21, 2017).

So I went to the location of the centre at 470 Columbia St only to find a parking lot. Thinking that the address might be wrong, I searched the directory of the medical building next door and found that no stem cell centre was listed.

The Stem Cell Centers website lists Kamloops as the only one in Canada. Dr. Richard Brownlee is named as the surgeon with “more information coming soon.”

“Stem cell therapy,” says the website, “can help with orthopedic or pain management, ophthalmological conditions, cardiac or pulmonary conditions, neurological conditions, and auto-immune diseases, among many other conditions and disease that results in damaged tissue.”

One of the ophthalmological conditions they treat is macular degeneration. “If your vision is fading due to macular degeneration, you know it’s time to seek help. Our non-invasive Stem Cell Therapy treatment might be the solution for you.”

I wanted get Dr. Brownlee’s reaction to news that an unproven stem cell treatment had resulted in blindness according to the New England Journal of Medicine as reported in the Globe and Mail, March 20, 2017.

”This week, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reported on three individuals who went blind after receiving an unproven stem cell treatment at a Florida clinic. The patients paid thousands of dollars for what they thought was a clinical trial on the use of stem cells to treat macular degeneration.”

The writer of the Globe and Mail article, Timothy Caulfield, Research Chair of the in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, doesn’t name the Florida clinic.

The Stem Cell Centers website refers optimistically to treatment for macular degeneration at a Florida clinic, although apparently not theirs since no Florida clinic appears on their list. It tells of how Doug Oliver suffered from macular degeneration before stem cells were extracted from his hip bone and injected them into his eyes. Almost immediately, Oliver’s eyesight started to improve. “I began weeping,” he said.

Caulfield encourages caution. “Health science gets a lot of attention in the popular press. People love hearing about breakthroughs, paradigm shifts and emerging cures. The problem is, these stories are almost always misleading.” “It can also help to legitimize the marketing of unproven therapies.”

Reports from the Stem Cell Centers’ own website are cautionary as well. It quotes an abstract from a study done by the Southern California College of Optometry on how “stem cells might ultimately be used to restore the entire visual pathway.”

The promise of stem cell research is phenomenal. Scientific American (Jan., 2017) reports that brains can be grown in a lab dish from stem cells taken from skin. These samples can be used to research brain disorders ranging from schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s disease, and to explore why only some babies develop brain-shrinking microcephaly after exposure to the Zika virus.

However, Dr. George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, concludes that there are only a handful of clinical applications available and they are for skin and blood-related ailments.

Practice, it seems, has not yet matched the promise of stem cell research.

 

 

 

Legalize heroin and save lives

Legal opiates are being use to adulterate illegal ones with tragic consequences. More than 800 British Columbians were killed in fentanyl-related overdoses last year. Many of them were ordinary Canadians you might find living next door. One of them was my nephew who died a few years ago.

Calgary Herald

Calgary Herald

They injected what they thought was heroin, or some other illegal drug. If they had injected legal heroin, of known purity and strength, they would still be alive. I’m not naive; they would still be addicted but their quest for bliss would not have ended in death.

It’s a question of harm prevention. Legalization of heroin may seem like a radical idea but not long ago so did giving drug addicts clean needles and a safe place to inject.

Like the prohibition of alcohol, the prohibition of drugs has been a dismal failure. Prohibition simply pushes the drug trade underground. When a trade is unregulated, who knows what junk users will end up taking? Drug manufacturers don’t intend to kill users: it’s bad for business to kill your customers. They just want to maximize profits.

Fentanyl is perfectly legal. It’s prescribed by doctors for controlling pain. Fentanyl is just one the opium family. It turns out that all of them are addictive.

A brief history of legal opiates is a guide to the intersection of illegal ones. Opium from Persian poppies has been used for pain control since the fourth century. Researchers discovered the active components of opium -morphine, codeine and theobain- in the 1800s. In an attempt to find a non-additive painkiller, heroin was derived from morphine. The manufacturer of heroin, Bayer, pulled it from shelves in 1913 once it was found to be addictive.

In the quest for a non-addictive pain killer, Perdue Canada filed a patent in 1992 for OxyContin, a pill that would treat pain “without unacceptable side effects (Globe and Mail, Dec. 30, 2016).” Perdue encouraged doctors to prescribe the pill and soon it was a blockbuster hit with billions of dollars being made.

But OxyContin turned out to have terrible side effects and thousands of were hooked. Canadians consume more prescription opiates on a per-capita basis than any other country in the world according to a United Nations report.

As in all opiates, those hooked on OxyContin become habituated so that they needed more pills to control pain. Purdue attempted to control the problem with the replacement OxyNEO in 2012, a tamper-resistant alternative that is difficult to crush, snort or inject. And that same year, the provinces stopped paying for both opiates.

Both factors drove addicts to the streets to find a fix. Illegal drug manufacturers care not how their clients get hooked, whether it be from the pursuit of bliss or the relief of pain.

Fentanyl is now the universal opiate. Manufactured in China in concentrated form, it can be ordered on the internet and sent through the mail. From there, it is pressed into pills to mimic OxyContin and other opiates.

Making fentanyl illegal is not the solution. Drug abuse is a medical problem, not a criminal one. All opiates should be legalized and safe doses prescribed. Education, as in tobacco and alcohol abuse, is the only solution.

Provincial health ministers should stop bickering

The provincial health ministers should resolve in the New Year to stop bickering, take the money from the feds, and use it as intended.

bickering-health

 

It’s a recurring bad movie says Canadian Medical Association president Granger Avery: “The Groundhog Day-type discussions where political leaders bat around percentages and figures at meetings in hotels have to stop. Our system needs better, and most important, our citizens deserve better (Globe and Mail, Dec.19, 2016).”

The provinces have had thirteen years of increases from the feds at 6 per cent a year to improve health delivery. “The transfers have been growing quite generously,” says Livio Di Matteo, a health-care economist at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. “If you go back to about 2007, if you look at public-health spending, which is largely provincial, it’s grown about 40 per cent. The Canada Health Transfer to the provinces has grown about 70 per cent.”

We need to spend smarter. Canada spends more on health care than Australia, for example, with poorer outcomes as measured by life expectancy and infant mortality.

The provinces have not fixed the problem during times of plenty and now are faced with problems of an aging population. In addition to increased funding at 3.5 per cent a year, the feds have offered $11.5 billion for home care and mental health. I don’t know who writes the province’s absurd scripts: let’s refuse the offer, even though it’s what we want, because we want more.

Provincial health ministers don’t get it. B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake worries that if B.C. were to take the money offered, and start home-care programs, that the programs wouldn’t be sustainable when funding dries up. That would be true if hospital costs remain the same when home-care programs are added.

Home-care programs would reduce hospital costs. Hospital beds cost $1,100 per day whereas home care is one-quarter that cost according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Seniors take up 85 per cent of those expensive hospital beds and one-half of them remain in beds even though they are well enough to be moved because there are no long-term care facilities or home care.

Take the money spent on hospitals and spend it in the community. That would mean that four seniors would be cared for at the same cost as one in a hospital -and they would be happier.

The politics and perception of health care would have to change. Hospitals have become a measure of a politician’s success because they are highly visible monuments to health care; something that you can be sure the B.C. minister will point to often in the campaign leading up to the provincial election next May.

It’s a problem of perception, too. Home care is virtually unseen except by the few affected. It’s hard to point to the thousands of seniors happily living at home as a measure of success. British Columbians will have to change perceptions of health, from hospitals as shrines were doctors are the high priests, to a flatter hierarchy where care is diffuse and in the hands of other professionals.