Belgian pharmacists to help people ween themselves off sleeping pills

Belgian pharmacists to help people ween themselves off sleeping pills
Credit: Belga/Herwig Vergult

To tackle to problematic use of sleeping pills in Belgium, pharmacists will now be able to closely support people who want to phase out their dependency on sleep medication – if the GP prescribed such treatment from pharmacists, announced Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke.

Around 400 million doses of sleep aids are bought in Belgium every year, and more than one million are taken every day. Research shows that the use of sleeping pills and sedatives increased by 21% in 2020 compared to 2018, and most patients take them for longer than recommended. More than a third even show signs of psychological dependence.

"Today, people already often ask their pharmacist for medical advice. We are building on that relationship of trust and their expertise by actively involving the pharmacist in phasing out excessive use of sleep medication," said Vandenbroucke.

Of all healthcare providers, pharmacists have the highest number of daily contacts with the population (more than 500,000 per day). And importantly, people usually trust their pharmacist, and very often they are a point of contact for initial complaints.

'Pharmaceutical services'

Therefore, from 1 February, pharmacists – on the prescription of GPs – will (be able to) help patients phase out the daily use of sleep aids, this concerns benzodiazepine-based sleep aids and related products.

This phasing-out programme is free and consists of an initiation interview, preparation and delivery of preparations to reduce or even stop use, and close follow-up of the patient in question. People will only have to pay for the medication the pharmacist processes in the preparations.

Vandenbroucke wants to use the close contact between pharmacists and patients to strengthen the former in their role as healthcare providers in primary healthcare and is now entrusting them with more tasks in the form of "pharmaceutical services" – which will include the counteracting of poor (and especially excessive) use of medicines.

While sleeping pills can help people get the sleep they need, they also quickly become addictive and make people much less alert. Improper and excessive use carries significant health risks as physical coordination deteriorates and reactions slow down considerably. Especially when driving in traffic, this can be dangerous. For older people, in turn, there is a much higher risk of falling.

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"Apart from health risks associated with the excessive and incorrect use of sleep aids, it also drives up people's costs unnecessarily. And that while we see that sleep aids are not an answer to problems that are often related to our mental well-being," Vandenbroucke said.

Therefore, he said, the investment in and reform of low-threshold and accessible mental health care is so important. "On the other hand, we need to ensure that sleep aids are used wisely, and this is where pharmacists can now play an important role. People trust their pharmacist, they are often the first point of contact."

Additionally, patients who chronically (have to) take five or more different drugs a year will also be able to call on their pharmacist to take the various medications properly and receive the necessary guidance from 1 April as well. This will again be done in close consultation with the GP. The aim is to maintain a good overview together with the patient, and – if possible – reduce or remove some medication over time.

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