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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 11:18 GMT
Drug users 'failed' by health service
Injecting heroin
Long surgery waiting lists turn addicts off seeking help
Drug addicts are slipping through the net of care because the service is badly organised and doctors lack appropriate training, according to a report by the Audit Commission.

Misuse of drugs is estimated to be the cause of half of all crime and costs society 4bn a year, but systems set up to treat addicts are inefficient, the financial watchdog found.

Home Office research suggests that for every extra 1 spent on helping addicts, 3 would be saved in dealing with the after-effects of drug-related crime.

Two-thirds of all people arrested test positive for one or more illegal drugs. And nearly half of those, have been taking heroin or cocaine.

Waiting lists at surgeries and a lack of training among doctors are key problems in England highlighted in the commission's Changing Habits report.


The current pattern of service means that too many drug users still struggle to get the help they need, when they need it

Audit Commission

The government is trying to tackle the problem with more investment to boost local services but the commission says more needs to be done.

The report out on Wednesday has gained the backing of drug abuse charities who welcome its findings.

Long waiting lists - which can drive addicts away from seeking help - is identified as one of the most pressing problems in need of action.

Lack of expertise

In one area, with a five-month waiting list for the community drug team, only one in three clients attended an appointment, the report found.

High workloads and limited care management meant these errant clients were often not followed up.

Dermot Kearney as Vickers chases money for drugs from Janine played by Charlie Brooks in EastEnders
TV soap EastEnders portrays the effects on drug users
More problems stem from the fact that poor links exist between different agencies such as mental health teams and prisons.

The commission says many doctors shy away from providing specialist help because they lack the expertise and support.

Some 1,574 doctors responded to the commission's survey for its report.

Two thirds said they lacked the training to support drug users and did not have easy access to specialist advice and support.

The commission says some of the problems stem from under-investment in the local services in the past but a "fragmented" approach to buying-in the right treatment for drug addicts is also to blame.

'Trapped'

Andrew Foster, Audit Commission Controller, said: "The current pattern of service means that too many drug users still struggle to get the help they need, when they need it.

"As a result, many end up trapped in a cycle of dependency and drug-related crime."

It often means those with "complex needs" struggle most to get help, says the commission.

The number of people become addicted to drugs is rising and so is the cost of treating them, according to the report.

Between 1990 and 19996 addict notifications doubled and drug related deaths increased "markedly" says the report.

Supporting those with a drug habit cost from 3-4bn between 2001/02, it adds.

Treatment

The commission says the government should be doing more to collate information on how best to help addicts and to compare the various services on offer.

The government has recently set up a National Treatment Agency (NTA) to improve standards in local services, which helps say the commission.

The charity DrugScope says it has been raising the issues covered in the report with the government "for years".

Roger Howard, the charity's chief executive: "Intolerable waiting lists and inconsistent standards of care all contribute to a system which can be extremely painful for already vulnerable drug users and their families in need of help."

And he questioned whether the government's efforts through the NTA would stretch to all the areas of need.

"The drugs workforce ... needs to be better equipped to deal with the ever changing UK drug situation," he said.

In response to the Audit Commission's report, the agency said it believed the issues raised were already being addressed.

More funds

In a statement the NTA said targets had been set for improving treatment to drug users and these would be monitored.

It also said the government had increased spending on drug addiction services from 234 million in 2001-02 to 400 million by 2003-04. The spending of this money would also be monitored, it said.

Paul Hayes, chief executive of the NTA, said: "The NTA wants to see more treatment available - but we also want to ensure that it is better treatment, provided by skilled, well-supported staff and delivered in a way that is appropriate for the communities that they serve."

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The BBC's Daniel Sandford
"1/2bn spent on drugs each year is raised through crime""
See also:

09 Feb 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
Swiss help for heroin addicts
06 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
Drug addicts criticise 'uncaring' doctors
18 Sep 01 | Scotland
Killer heroin report published
26 Feb 01 | Health
Drug-related deaths soar
20 Feb 01 | Health
UK children top drugs league
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