By Letter to the Editor on January 4, 2017.
If an obscure, yet preventable disease was killing our children at a rate of one death every 18 hours, there is no doubt Albertans would see an immediate and overwhelming response from government, particularly in the collection and reporting of information. Why then the modest response and slow reporting of opiate-related deaths?
Understanding the scope of a health crisis and the nature of its rapidly changing dynamics is a pillar of public health practice. Yet, the Chief Medical Examiner and the Provincial Health Officer have indicated they will only report the number of opiate-related deaths in Alberta every three months.
Why? Because they don’t have the resources to report more frequently and because they don’t believe it will make any difference.
I find this troubling on two counts. First, why does the Medical Examiner’s office not have sufficient doctors to keep up with the deaths?
Second, more frequent statistics, especially death and emergency room visits for opiates, provide both a sense of urgency as well as a clear signal to frontline workers about what is working and what is not.
If Alberta Health was reporting on the wait-time for those seeking medical care, it would become graphically clear how a four to eight-week wait to access treatment is costing lives.
Police and EMS, too, have indicated their growing frustration at the numbers and the “revolving door” they experience with people who are:
a) Not getting the quality or timely access to medical supports they need for what is a long-term mental illness and addiction;
b) Not getting the psychological and social supports they need to recover control of their lives;
c) Not getting the material supports (stable housing, food, living allowance) to regain mental and physical health, confidence, independence and return to the workforce.
Mental illness and addictions are not fundamentally police issues – they are medical issues.
This crisis is now in its fourth year and the number of preventable deaths continues to skyrocket. It is long past time to acknowledge that more targeted resources are required.
We need harm reduction and supervised treatment and we absolutely must have a reporting regime that reflects the urgency and priority of this complex epidemic.
Lives will be saved, health-care dollars will be saved, and our dedicated police and EMS workers can focus on the other legal and medical issues they are trained to deal with.
Dr. David Swann
Leader, Alberta Liberal Opposition
MLA, Calgary-Mountain View
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