Despite concerns, opioids remain legitimate pain medications, says Health Canada

Health Canada says it is in the process of reviewing risk-management plans for high-dosage opioid treatments, which could potentially lead to the recall of some pills and patches.

The review was confirmed in the federal department’s response to a commentary by a doctor and a health lawyer, who called for Canada’s health minister to issue a recall for high-dosage formulations of drugs like fentanyl, oxycodone and morphine — when lower-dosage treatments of these drugs could be used instead.

The peer-reviewed commentary by Dr. David Juurlink and Matthew Herder, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal this week, asked Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor to use a tool in the Protecting Canadians from Unsafe Drugs Act that allows the minister to recall a drug she feels is unsafe.

In response to the commentary emailed to CBC, Health Canada spokesperson Maryse Durette confirmed a risk-management review is underway.

Durette added that Health Canada is already taking action on opioids, pointing to new warnings that pharmacists are required to include with opioid prescriptions, as well as new guidelines for pain-management prescriptions that Health Canada has supported.

She said opioids are legitimate medications that help alleviate pain.

“It is important for patients to discuss their pain management strategy with their health-care provider to help ensure that the medication is appropriate for their treatment, and they understand their treatment plan,” Durette said.

Pain advocates fear stigma of opioids is affecting patients

The authors of the commentary admit the proposed recall would not have much of an impact on people overdosing on street drugs laced with opioids.

But an advocate for people struggling with chronic pain also responded to the article, saying that those who need strong painkillers are being ignored in the debate.

“People who live with chronic pain are sort of collateral damage as the pendulum is swinging to the other extreme and there’s a rush to get everyone … off opioids,” said Pain B.C. executive director Maria Hudspith.

“If you’ve been on opioids for 20 years, and you’re living with multiple chronic diseases, what is going to happen to you?” 

Hudspith said she has seen family members of a palliative patient demand a fentanyl patch be removed from their loved one over fears of the opiod’s effects, despite patches being a common approach to ease intense pain in someone who is dying.

In 2017, nearly 4,000 people died in Canada because of an opioid overdose, with laced street drugs being the main killer.