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Finnish health officials move to ward off potential opioid crisis

Kela is warning physicians about rising consumption of strong painkillers, fearing a US-style opioid crisis here.

Poliisi auttamassa kadulla makaavaa ihmistä
A police officer assists an overdose victim in New Haven, Connecticut. More than 200,000 people have died of prescription opioid overdoses in the US since 1999. Image: EBU

Finland's Social Insurance Institution (Kela) is concerned that some physicians may be prescribing strong painkillers known as opioids on flimsy pretexts. Public health authorities fear that a drug crisis like that ravaging the United States could also develop in Finland.

Health insurance-reimbursed purchases of the powerful pain medication oxycodone (also sold in Finland as Oxanest, OxyContin and Oxynorm) have risen significantly in Finland in recent years.

During the summer and autumn, Kela will send out letters to those doctors and dentists who have prescribed the powerful opioids oxycodone or fentanyl to patients other than those suffering from cancer or in hospice care.

The letters will be sent to around 7,000 doctors and dentists, urging them to be cautious in prescribing strong opioids due to the risk of addiction.

Not seeking "guilty parties"

"The intention is not to seek out guilty parties or to say that someone had done something wrong," Kela Research Manager Leena Saastamoinen told the news agency STT. There are more than 22,000 doctors in Finland.

Kela officials are worried by the example of the opioid crisis in the US, where strong opioids have been prescribed on dubious grounds. many patients have become addicted to these strongly habit-forming pharmaceuticals, and the number of overdoses has spiked. More than 200,000 people died in the US from overdoses related to prescription opioids between 1999 and 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"In Finland, too, there has been a significant increase in oxycodone purchases reimbursed by health insurance in recent years," Saastamoinen noted.

Kela has sent doctors similar letters of guidance on prescriptions since 1997.

"In recent years these have been sent on a targeted basis regarding prescriptions of drugs with clearly harmful associations," Saastamoinen explained.

In 2017, for example, Kela warned physicians against prescribing large quantities of co-codamol pills combining two painkillers, codeine and paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen).

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