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Sunday, 21 December 2014

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Cumbria health group launches crackdown on highly addictive tranquillisers

Thousands of people across Cumbria could be taking highly-addictive prescription tranquillisers they do not need.

Dr Julie Tarn photo
Dr Julie Tarn

A campaign is now being launched to help reduce these numbers and improve patients’ quality of life.

It follows a successful pilot scheme in Aspatria.

The campaign focuses on the use of prescription tranquillisers, such as diazepam, temazepam, zopiclone, zolpidem and cholordiazepoxide – given out to help with anxiety and sleep problems.

David Rogers, one of the county’s lead GPs, said these drugs should only be used short term other than in exceptional cases. Yet historically patients have remained on them unnecessarily for long periods – and in some cases decades.

NHS Cumbria Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), the main commissioner of health services in the county, is behind the campaign to tackle it.

It is supporting GPs to offer a withdrawal service for those who are inappropriately taking these drugs, and only giving them out when really necessary and for short stints.

In 2012/13 more than 105,000 of these prescriptions were given out across Cumbria.

But Dr Rogers stressed that it is not about cost-cutting.

“It’s not about money, it’s about doing the right thing and the best thing for patients. Obviously, there is some money involved but these are not expensive drugs,” he said.

Known as benzodiazepines and Z-drugs, they do have benefits for some patients but are actually only licensed for use two weeks at a time.

This is because the benefits rapidly reduce and side effects and dependency can affect the quality of patients’ lives. Side effects can include dulled reactions, increasing chances of falling, confusion, memory problems, drowsiness and dizziness.

They can also affect driving performance.

In Aspatria, a pilot scheme run by the town’s GPs has shown that the vast majority of patients can successfully come off these drugs.

Dr Julie Tarn, from Aspatria Medical Group, said: “Of the 247 patients who were unnecessarily taking these strong drugs, just 19 are still using them. And five of those had been on benzodiazepines or Z-drugs for more than 20 years.”

She explained that when people have been using drugs like this for some time it may not be easy, or desirable, to stop them.

But she said: “The programme provides a controlled and managed withdrawal. It is about understanding why the drugs were started in the first place and looking at better ways of managing that problem.”

Dr Tarn said the partner of one patient who successfully came off the drugs later contacted the practice to say they had given him his wife – who had become confused, sleepy and withdrawn as a result of long-term use – back.

In Aspatria, the practice invited all of its patients who had prescribed the drugs for long periods of time to attend special clinics.

All but two attended and she said many did not realise what the side effects were.

In many cases patients have been able to come off the drugs with a gradual withdrawal, supported by their GP. It is not recommended to stop taking these drugs suddenly.

Dr Tarn added: “It is never too late to come off them and there are significant health benefits to reducing the amount you take.

“These drugs have a place in prescribing. However, they are not beneficial for anyone when taken long term.”

A poster campaign is being launched across the county to raise awareness about the drugs and encourage patients to talk to their GP.

Doctors will adopt a new prescribing strategy, so they are not simply given out long-term without exceptional circumstances.

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