Monday, September 18, 2017

Painfully Common – Codeine Crisis?

Pain management can be complicated since there is no objective test to assess pain like in hypertension, and pain can be difficult to clearly articulate.  It’s also common for patients to ask for codeine containing products (schedule 2 in Ontario), to manage their pain.  Codeine is metabolized by the CYP2D6 enzyme into morphine, which then exerts its painkilling effects.  Patients metabolize codeine into morphine at different rates, therefore some patients may have a lot of pain relief and others may not experience anything at all.  To complicate things even further, codeine is an opioid that can cause addiction.

These factors contribute to why Health Canada is considering banning all non-prescription codeine1.  Health Canada is most concerned about the addictive potential of codeine, as they’ve noticed a significant number of patients entering rehab programs for non-prescription codeine substance abuse alone1.  From a pharmacist perspective, there are two predominant viewpoints:
  1. Schedule 2 codeine products have an important role in therapy and with the appropriate tools, they can be effectively monitored for abuse.
  2. Schedule 2 codeine products are too unsafe, due to their abuse potential, to be sold without a prescription.
Whether pharmacists can effectively monitor non-prescription codeine depends on the electronic tools available to them in each province.   For example, Alberta pharmacists have access to the patient’s electronic medical record (EMR) called NETCARE. They can use the software to identify when the patient last picked up codeine.  In this situation, schedule 2 codeine products can have an effective role in therapy and may not need to be prescription, since pharmacists are capable of monitoring for abuse.

However, Ontario pharmacists do not have access to an EMR and thus are unable to assess if the medication is being abused.  This can be dangerous since it is impossible to know how much codeine the patient is using.  In this instance, banning the sale of the non-prescription codeine products may be appropriate.

Health Canada should encourage provinces to make the appropriate regulatory changes based on their pharmacy infrastructure.  If the appropriate mechanisms are in place to monitor for abuse, the provinces should trust pharmacists to make the correct judgement to dispense codeine.

In either case, pharmacists must be competent to counsel patients on effective pain management strategies.  RxBriefCase offers an excellent program discussing mild to moderate pain management in primary care:
It will be interesting to see how Health Canada decides to regulate non-prescription codeine and how changes to the legislation will impact patients.

- Ajay Chahal

  1. Beeby, D. (2017, September 11). Health Canada aims for prescription-only codeine pills, syrups. Retrieved September 15, 2017, from