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RPS hails Scottish pharmacy naloxone action as drug deaths plummet

Scotland has seen the largest year-on-year decline in drug deaths since records began, according to the national statistics office.

As Scotland recorded a 21% decline in drug-related deaths in 2022, according to National Records of Scotland (NRS), the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) has praised the increased availability of naloxone in community pharmacies.

NRS this week (August 22) reported that 1,051 people died due to drug misuse in 2022 - 279 fewer deaths than the previous year.

This was the lowest number of deaths from drug misuse since 2017 and the largest year-on-year reduction since reporting began in 1996, it showed. 

Read more: The pharmacies saving lives of opiate users with naloxone

Nevertheless, Scotland’s rate of “drug poisoning” deaths is still the highest of any region in the UK at 2.7 times the UK average in 2021 – the most recent year that UK data is available - according to NRS.

In 2020, 1,339 deaths due to drug misuse were reported in Scotland - an all-time high – and “most years” had seen an increase in deaths over the last two decades, it said.

Opiates or opioids such as heroin, morphine and methadone were implicated in 82% of all drug misuse deaths, it added.


“Still far too high”


Director of RPS Scotland Laura Wilson said on Tuesday that she welcomed the Scottish government’s “initial steps” to reduce deaths and harm from drugs misuse.

She pointed in particular to its action to “expand the availability of naloxone within community pharmacies for emergency use”, which can rapidly reverse opiate overdose.

Nevertheless, Ms Wilson noted that “the numbers are still far too high” with every death from drug misuse a “tragedy”.

Read more: Commission more pharmacy take-home naloxone services, review says

Scotland’s drugs and alcohol policy minister Elena Whitham welcomed the fall in drug misuse deaths and promised to improve access to treatment and support, in a statement following the NRS release.

Ms Whitham noted the “significant progress” made by the rollout of the Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) standards, which promote the “delivery of safe, accessible, high-quality drug treatment” in Scotland.


National mission on drugs


In January 2021, then first minister Nicola Sturgeon launched the Scottish government’s national mission on drugs, a five-year £250-million programme to “reduce drug-related deaths and harms”.

The MAT standards were “central to the mission”, according to the Scottish government.

And community pharmacy has a large role in delivering the MAT standards, according to the most recent benchmarking report on their implementation, published last month (July 23).

Read more: Use ‘discretion’ when supplying opioid substitution therapy pre-bank holiday

The benchmarking report showed that the opioid substitutes methadone, short-acting oral buprenorphine and long-acting injectable buprenorphine (Buvidal) are now on all Scottish health board’s prescribing formularies. 

Community pharmacies can administer Buvidal to patients themselves or they can provide other treatment services with stock of the long-acting buprenorphine, it said.

Buvidal, which is given at regular weekly or monthly intervals rather than daily like methadone, provides patients with “more opportunities, flexibility, privacy and dignity”, the benchmarking report notes. 

Read more: Pharmacies in Scotland supplied over 9,000 take-home naloxone kits in 2020/21

In 2023, 13% of people requesting opioid substitution therapy chose Buvidal/long-acting injectable buprenorphine, up from 6% in 2022, it showed.

The benchmarking report also noted that 75% of people who requested an opioid substitution prescription received it within four days this year, a “significant improvement from 2022”.

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