From the Journals

Safer opioid supply program in Canada helps those who face overdose risks



The Safer Opioid Supply (SOS) Program near Toronto, Canada, appears to be a safe and effective harm-reduction initiative, according to new data.

An analysis indicates that the program is associated with a reduction in emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and overall health care costs. In addition, there were no opioid-related deaths among participants who were at high risk of overdose.

“Not only did hospital engagements decline immediately after starting SOS programs, but also the risk of overdose did not change, and there were no opioid-related deaths in the 1-year follow-up,” study author Tara Gomes, PhD, an assistant professor of health policy, management, and evaluation at the University of Toronto and a scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, said in an interview.

Dr. Gomes is the lead principal investigator of the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network, a collaboration between researchers and drug policy decision-makers in the province.

“These changes were not seen in a group of similar individuals who lived in the same city – so were exposed to the same illicit drug supply – but who were not part of this program, helping to reinforce that these changes are specific to SOS participation,” she said.

The study was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Hospital admissions declined

More than 29,000 opioid-related toxicity deaths occurred in Canada between 2016 and 2021, often as a result of high levels of fentanyl in the drug supply, according to the investigators. In response, SOS programs have been launched in several provinces, including the first formal SOS program at the London (Ont.) InterCommunity Health Centre. As part of the program, clients are prescribed pharmaceutical opioids as an alternative to the fentanyl-adulterated drug supply and are given health and social supports.

Dr. Gomes and colleagues conducted an interrupted time series analysis of residents in London, Ont., who had received a diagnosis of opioid use disorder and had had a health care encounter related to the diagnosis between January 2016 and March 2019. They followed 82 participants who entered the SOS program, as well as a comparison group of 303 people who were matched on the basis of demographic and clinical characteristics but who did not participate in the program.

The research team focused on the population’s numbers of emergency department visits, hospital admissions, infection rates, and health care costs. They used autoregressive integrated moving average models to evaluate the effect of starting the SOS program and to compare the population’s outcome rates in the year before and after entering the program.

For participants who entered the program, the rate of emergency department visits declined by about 14 visits per 100 people. In addition, hospital admissions declined by about 5 admissions per 100 people. Health care costs that weren’t related to primary care or outpatient medications declined by about $922 per person. The rate of hospital admission for infections remained about the same; the investigators observed a decline of about 1.6 infections per 100 people.

In the year after entry into the program, emergency department visits, hospital admissions, infection-related admissions, and total health care costs declined significantly among SOS clients, compared with the year before.

Conversely, there were no significant changes in any of the measured outcomes among the 303 people who didn’t participate in the program.


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