Around 300,000 patients in the UK may be long-term users of benzodiazepines and Z-drugs, according to researchers who say the results represent ‘a serious public health problem’.
The RCGP has called for more services in the community that are 'easily accessible' to help patients who want to stop using the drugs.
Researchers added that the study, published in the British Journal of General Practice (BJGP), represents the ‘first reliable, evidence-based estimate’ of long-term use of benzodiazepines and Z-drugs in the UK.
It found that 0.69% of the 100,000 patients involved in the study had been prescribed the drugs for over 12 months – but 40% of these indicated they would be interested in entering a programme aimed at withdrawing from use of the drug.
Scaled across the whole population, this would suggest around 300,000 patients have been taking the drugs for over a year, over 12 times the recommended treatment period.
Guidelines recommend that usage does not exceed four weeks, with long-term use linked to adverse neurological and cognitive effects – in addition to physical and psychological dependency.
Around 16m prescriptions for benzodiazepines and Z-drugs – including zolpidem, zopiclone and zaleplon – are issued every year in England to treat anxiety, insomnia and other conditions.
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: ‘Withdrawal from benzodiazepines requires careful management by healthcare professionals, so it’s vital that there are sufficient addiction management services available in the community to facilitate this, and at present this unfortunately is not the case.
‘We would strongly support this study’s calls for all patients who do become dependent on prescription drugs, benzodiazepines or otherwise, to have easy, consistent, but also confidential access to support – and for more guidance for healthcare professionals, such as the recently updated "orange" guidelines, to appropriately manage prescriptions for benzodiazepines.
‘NHS England’s GP Forward View includes pledges for every GP practice to have access to a trained mental health therapist – this promise needs to be implemented urgently, if we are to deliver the best possible care to patients with mental health problems, including addiction.’