Treatment programme in demand as fears grow over lockdown painkiller use

Helen Gibson, Managing Director of Agencia.
Helen Gibson, Managing Director of Agencia.

An East Yorkshire business which has transformed the lives of people hooked on prescription drugs is standing by to roll out its addiction service across the country in response to rising demand linked to the lockdown.

Agencia, based in Hessle, first operated ReWire in North Lincolnshire in 2016 and is exploring invitations to revive the service in Yorkshire and parts of the north east and the north west.

A key benefit is the ability to deliver ReWire remotely, making the service ideal for patients who have been confined to their homes for weeks, unable to visit their local health professionals. 

Helen Gibson, Managing Director of Agencia, said the isolation experienced by so many people heightens the concerns in a report by Public Health England (PHE) in 2019 which revealed that 26 per cent of the population was in receipt of prescribed medication with the potential to become addictive.

More recent data released recently by The Health Foundation’s analytical service Open Prescribing shows that during March 2020 there was an increase of 8.5 million prescription items, up 9.3 per cent on the figure for March 2019.

The PHE report said: “More people are being prescribed more of these medicines and often for longer. This means more people are at risk of becoming addicted to them or having problems when they stop using them.

“The medicines we looked at help to make millions of people every year feel better and recover from their illness. Doctors can prescribe them because there is good evidence that they work, but they do have some risks. 

“Stopping or limiting the use of medicines could also cause harm, including increasing the risk of suicide or making people try to get medicines or illegal alternatives from less safe sources, such as illegal websites or drug dealers.”

PHE also identified higher use of many prescription drugs in areas of greater deprivation and recommended improvements in the information, advice and support available to patients from doctors and specialist services.

Dr Girgis Henalla a highly experienced GP who has worked with ReWire from the Ancora medical practice in Scunthorpe, said: ‘’As we emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown we are likely to see an increase in patients at risk from misusing painkillers over this very stressful period. Our work with the ReWire project proved how important it was to identify those most at risk and reach out to support them at the earliest opportunity.”

Case studies compiled by Agencia tell a story of “accidental addicts”, with medication prescribed to meet a genuine need but then becoming part of the problem.

Some cases are linked to specific incidents. One patient fell from a horse and was on painkillers for five years, and another was prescribed Codeine for toothache and even after five years was topping up the drug by spending £15 every day on over-the-counter painkillers.

Other patients were referred to ReWire by pharmacists, with anxiety and depression among the additional concerns linked to the initial painkiller addiction.

Dr Henalla’s fear that more people may be misusing painkillers is based on moves to enable patients to stock up on repeat prescriptions in advance, thereby easing the pressure on the NHS as the demands of coronavirus increased. Another factor is the psychological impact of the lockdown on patients.

ReWire uses data held on the General Practice system to identify and intervene early with those most at risk and reduce their use of inappropriate medication and any later need for expensive treatment for full-blown addiction. 

The service has achieved a 27 per cent drop in the need for prescriptions as well as a reduction of at least two GP appointments per annum for patients and of at least five hospital outpatient Gastroenterology appointments.

Helen said: “At a time when painkiller use is climbing, with the PHE review indicating that as many as one in four patients are taking potentially addictive drugs, and with further increases expected as we exit lockdown we’re experiencing greater interest in ReWire from healthcare providers and patients.

“Health professionals elsewhere in the country are noting the potential for ReWire to provide national coverage, with the remote nature of the service enabling it to be mobilised quickly and followed up effectively to ensure changes are maintained and self-help networks developed.”

[Phil Ascough – Ascough Associates]