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DHSC to expand drug and alcohol services and workforce

DHSC to expand drug and alcohol services and workforce
By Eliza Parr
15 May 2024

The Government has announced new plans to improve addiction treatment, including expanding access to opioid overdose antidote naloxone, and growing the medical workforce.

Following a consultation earlier this year, the Government has committed to enabling more professionals, such as nurses and police officers, to provide take-home supplies of naloxone. 

Alongside this, NHS England has published its 10-year strategic plan to expand the drug and alcohol treatment and recovery workforce, which will aim to improve training, particularly for roles which are currently unregulated. 

NHSE’s strategy comes with a £532m investment and aims to have 800 more medical, mental health and other regulated professionals in the workforce by April 2025, along with 950 additional drug and alcohol criminal justice workers and more drug and alcohol commissioners in every local authority.

However, it recognised that the ‘national shortage of medical professionals’ may hold back ambitions to expand the number of medics. 

‘It is important to note that there is no quick fix for the lack of medical workforce presence in the drug and alcohol treatment and recovery sector. The training of a medical workforce takes many years, meaning vast improvements in recruitment are unlikely to occur soon or within the scope of this strategic plan.’

According to NHS England, medics make up less than 2% of the current drug and alcohol workforce, which includes just 38 GPs and GP trainees.

Although GPs make up a small proportion of this specialist workforce, the plan said medics are ‘often overlooked and lacking in numbers’ and highlighted that it is ‘vital’ to have GPs and psychiatrists as part of treatment pathways. 

It committed to developing a ‘career pathway’ for GPs who want to develop further within this sector, which includes ‘clear supervision’. 

The plan also called on alcohol and drug treatment providers to ‘promote a culture of career development for GPs’, and suggested creating a ‘GP support pack’. 

Dr Samantha Bhima, clinical lead and GP with extended role in substance misuse at East London NHS Foundation Trust, said commitments like this are ‘very positive thing’ and in her view there should be GPs ‘in every addiction service in the country’.

‘There’s been a long tradition of GPs training and being in drug and alcohol services. However with funding for that training reducing 10 years ago, there’s been far fewer people doing it,’ she said.

On opioid overdose treatment, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) will update legislation ‘over the next few weeks’ to allow more professionals to supply take-home naloxone, which almost immediately reverses the effect of an overdose. 

Currently naloxone can be administered by anyone in an emergency, but can only legally be supplied without prescription by drug and alcohol treatment services.

These changes to the regulations increase access to naloxone so that family members or friends of people known to be using opiates can take it home for future use in the event of an overdose. 

In 2022, opioids were involved in almost three-quarters of drug misuse deaths registered in England, and 82% of those in Scotland. 

Health secretary Victoria Atkins said opioid addiction is responsible for the ‘largest proportion of drug-related deaths’ in the UK and ‘can ruin lives’.

She said: ‘We are working hard to reduce those numbers by expanding access to naloxone to save the lives of the most vulnerable. 

‘Our 10-year workforce plan will expand and boost the training of the next generation of drug and alcohol workers to improve services and support people to get their lives back on track.’

Drug-related deaths have risen to record levels in recent years, with men more likely to die than women.

A version of this story was first published on our sister title Pulse.

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