GPs in the north of England often prescribe more painkillers to patients than doctors in the south, finds new research published today.
Analysis of data has found that England’s annual prescription bill for analgesics in 2010-11 reached £442million – up from £384million in 2008-09 and £410million in 2009-10.
Data analysis firm SSentif also found that there was a noticeable north-south divide, with northern GPs prescribing up to 69% more painkillers than those in the south.
The annual NHS spend in England on analgesics equated to an average spend per head of £8.80, but in some northern towns and cities this figure was as much as £15 per head whilst in some areas of the south it was £3.26 per head.
The firm studied data for the period April 2008 to June 2011 from the NHS Information Centre and the Office for National Statistics.
Highest prescribing rates were in Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Rochdale and Blackpool, with painkiller prescription bills in those primary care trusts averaging £2.3million each.
These figures were more than double the prescription rate in the least medicated PCTs of Richmond and Twickenham, Camden and Westminster despite having significantly lower populations.
The research also analysed the correlation between deprivation, age and painkiller spending and found that in the south there was a strong correlation between painkiller spending and age, but almost none with deprivation despite having three of the most deprived areas of the country – Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham.
In addition, the analysis found that some PCTs spend thousands prescribing over the counter painkillers and branded cold and flu treatments such as Lemsip, Beechams, Anadin and Panadol.
Judy Aldred, managing director of SSentif: “£442million is a huge amount and the data shows spend on analgesics has increased steadily year-on-year.
“At the moment the responsibility for the prescribing budget lies with PCTs, but this is about to change. PCTs are phasing out and GPs are being given greater responsibility, including the management of their own prescribing budgets.
“When GPs begin shouldering the responsibility for prescribing costs it will be interesting to see if this continues.”
RCGP chair Dr Clare Gerada said: “There are very many reasons why GPs prescribe painkillers, including – but not limited to – the changing and increased needs of our ageing population, and the improved use of painkillers themselves.
“GPs understand the importance of responsible prescribing, and do so in accordance with the standards laid out by the British National Formulary. GPs do not prescribe just for the sake of it; they do it for the good of their patients.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “It is important that those living with pain should be able to obtain adequate relief. However the decision to prescribe pain relief must be clinically based on the assessment of the patient's needs.”