Concern over methadone doctor shortage

Burnet Institute

20 March, 2011

Concern that heroin users won't get the help they need.

Outlined in a Sunday Age (20 March 2011) article by Jill Stark, an audit of the system found the number of people receiving methadone and buprenorphine has risen by 15 per cent to more than 13,000 in the past four years.

In the period, the number of GPs prescribing the opiate-based heroin replacement drugs fell by the same percentage, to only 400, or about one in 10 GPs.

People in rural areas face the biggest challenge, as an estimated 20 doctors, mostly in inner Melbourne, look after 80 per cent of pharmacotherapy patients.

The Victorian Auditor-General’s report, released this month, has renewed fears that patients trying to kick heroin will find it difficult to get help.

Associate Professor Paul Dietze, head of the Burnet Institute’s alcohol and other drug research group, said a properly funded and managed pharmacotherapy system was cost-effective.

‘'It really does save the community a lot of money and a lot of heartache,’‘ he said. ’‘It fundamentally alters the way in which illicit drug markets operate and because there’s going to be much less demand for drugs, there’s much less crime associated with drug use.’'

State government reviews of the pharmacotherapy system in 1993, 2003 and last year all recommended an overhaul of services, but the Auditor-General found little progress had been made.

Associate Professor Dietze said the system had been heading towards crisis for several years.

‘'The prescribers are getting older and some of them are nearing retirement age and they’re burdened with what seems to be an extraordinarily large number of clients, so we need to be responding effectively now,’‘ he said.

Associate Professor Dietze called for New South Wales-style public clinics where patients could access methadone for up to a year. Once stabilised, they are seen by GPs privately.

To view the entire Sunday Age article click here.

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