Carers Australia is urging GPs to include carers of patients prescribed opioids in conversations about their medication, as part of the Department of Health’s ‘Safe and Effective Use of Prescription Opioids’ communication campaign.

The campaign follows the Australian Government’s regulatory reforms to ensure the appropriate use and prescribing of opioids, in response to rising rates of death and hospitalisation due to their use. This incorporated a 2020 study by ORIMA Research, which found that 18% of current opioid consumers failed to recognise the term ‘opioids’, and only 53% were aware they were taking an opioid medication, and went on to recommend increased education on the subject.

“We know there’s limited awareness and understanding of opioids across the board, and since the regulatory changes, many people now think they are becoming unavailable,” said Carers Australia CEO, Liz Callaghan. “For the majority of people, this confusion has occurred despite having a direct relationship with their GP. Many people taking opioids may also have a carer supporting them to take their medicines, so it’s vitally important that carers are involved in conversations about opioids.”

Only three-quarters of prescriber respondents in the ORIMA study reported that they typically provided information about opioids at the time of prescription ‘all or most of the time’ for first-time prescriptions. This raised concerns, given that patients tend to have worse opioid-related effectiveness and dependency outcomes when information provision is poor.

“Maintaining an open and ongoing dialogue is key in ensuring carers are educated on the risks involved in opioid use, as well as safe storage, administration and disposal of opioids, and that carers feel able to raise queries or concerns with the doctor at any stage to assist the person they are caring for,” said Ms Callaghan.

Although there are an estimated 2.65 million carers in Australia making a critical contribution to the nation’s community and economy, Ms Callaghan was keen to highlight that carers aren’t always instantly identifiable. Coming from all walks of life, cultural backgrounds and age groups, a carer is any individual who provides unpaid care and support to a family member or friend with a disability, mental illness, drug and/or alcohol dependency, chronic condition, terminal illness, or who are frail aged.

“Caring for someone who has high levels of pain can be difficult. Health professionals should be actively identifying if a patient has a carer, even if the carer does not identify themselves that way. More carer-inclusive practices will support a patient-centred approach, as well as linking the carer to services and supports that can assist them.”

The ORIMA report recommended that GPs have active conversations about the risks and benefits of opioids, highlighting the risk of dependence as a common side-effect, as well as supporting and encouraging non-opioid alternatives. The report encouraged the provision of relevant factsheets and Consumer Medicines Information (CMIs) rather than relying solely on verbal explanations – emphasising the fact that a carer may be the one relaying and reinforcing information to the patient.

Carers Australia is asking healthcare professionals to be proactive. “Don’t assume the carer will ask you for information,“ said Ms Callaghan. “GPs are a trusted source of information, and there is often the expectation that this will automatically be provided if it is important. This includes having information available in a variety of formats to ensure language and cultural barriers – or other issues such as vision impairment or low literacy – are supported.”

GPs can direct carers to the Carers Australia website, for information on caring for someone living with pain and taking opioids.