Leading article

Ending waiting lists might help lessen drugs impact

Stephen Oreilly

LONG surgical waiting lists have been a fact of life for a long time now. While governments come and go, promising to tackle the issue, the problem still affects the lives of many thousands of people on these islands who await surgery, sometimes for years.

Such has been the experience of a county Armagh man who has been waiting for an operation on a shoulder problem for five years. To add to the man's suffering he has had to undergo a rehabilitation programme after becoming addicted to painkillers, prescribed in the absence of surgical intervention.

Really there are two problems in this case. Obviously this man has waited for a prolonged period of time for the measures which are hoped till ease his physical pain. But secondly there is the matter of being prescribed a painkiller – Tramadol – which has been mentioned in police statements and other reports as being extremely addictive and the cause of many deaths through its misuse.

One doctor quoted in today's edition makes the case that GPs have few other options other than to prescribe opiates to patients who are suffering extreme pain on a daily basis and in some cases for a very long period of time.

It is probably impossible to calculate just how much drug dependency and misuse is costing society in total. But the problem does have a ripple effect on people's lives, affecting things like availability to work and mental health.

In fact former state pathologist Professor Jack Crane is so concerned about the use of the drug and the effects it is having on those using it, legally and illicitly, that he thinks tramadol should be reclassified as a class-A substance.

Professor Crane said he believes that patients prescribed the painkiller may not be fully aware of its addictive nature and just as importantly how dangerous it may be to attempt to stop using it without professional help.

Ending waiting lists for surgery would not end the use of tramadol. There will be many people who will not have a surgical option to end their pain and may have to live with the careful use of the drug.

However it would seem that by tackling these lists, as many health ministers have vowed to do in recent years, would logically make a large dent in the costs of prescribing powerful drugs, drugs which are causing harmful side effects to many of the people using them and killing an indeterminate amount of people who become hooked on them.

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