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B.C. will soon become the first jurisdiction in Canada to recognize alcohol addiction as a chronic medical condition.

B.C. will soon become the first jurisdiction in Canada to recognize alcohol addiction as a chronic medical condition. ( 3/11/2011 )

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VANCOUVER - B.C. will soon become the first jurisdiction in Canada to recognize alcohol addiction as a chronic medical condition.

Health Minister Colin Hansen said the change, to take effect April 1, will put the emphasis on preventive measures and give family doctors more time and resources to treat patients with alcohol addiction.

"It's saying to family physicians that if they identify somebody that has a chronic alcohol problem, they can treat them in the same way they would treat complex illnesses," he said.

"They get to spend more time with their patient, as opposed to the standard doctor's visit [where] they've got however many minutes to fill a prescription."

The move follows a 2009 B.C. Medical Association report on improving addiction care that recommended addiction be recognized as a chronic, treatable disease.

The government and BCMA are now working together to develop guidelines for identifying, assessing and treating problem drinkers. The guidelines will be distributed to family doctors throughout the province.

The BCMA report said that in 2006, addictions cost B.C. more than $6 billion, or about $1,500 per year for every citizen. The report said those figures include enormous health care costs, with one in 10 visits to B.C. emergency wards the result of some form of substance abuse.

Hansen compared the initiative to one he launched as health minister in 2004 that focused on preventive measures in diabetes and congestive heart failure.

"If you give the family doctors the tools with which they can manage the lifestyle changes for their patients, then you don't wind up with diabetes progressing to a point where you wind up with huge health care costs, with things like limb amputations," he said.

"If somebody is diagnosed with a chronic illness, then treat it in a preventive way, rather than in a crisis intervention way."

Dr. Shao-Hua Lu, an addiction psychiatrist, who chaired the BCMA committee that produced the report, said the government's move will help push acceptance and expansion of medical treatment for addiction.

"What B.C. has done is to become the first jurisdiction in Canada to formally recognize [addiction] under the chronic disease management program and formally recognize the role of medicine as an important component in the treatment of addiction," he said.

The BCMA report estimated 400,000 British Columbians may have some form of addiction or dependence problem, not including tobacco. The addictions are severe and chronic for 40,000 to 50,000 of that number.

Lu said if the new program results in a significant dent in the number of people going to emergency wards, the savings will be huge. "Obviously you can't take away all the one in 10 but just take away half," he said. "That's five per cent off, and that's a huge volume."

Lu said that with every disease, whether it is cancer, lupus or addiction, patients bear some responsibility for their own treatment.

But "in treating [addiction] as a disease, it brings to light the difficulties associated with the disease and allows the individual to have a greater effort to face it and ask for additional help and support," said Lu.

Family care physicians are ideally placed to broach the subject of addiction and the need for treatment, said Gordon Harper of the Umbrella Society for Addictions and Mental Health in Victoria.

"I really want to celebrate the role that primary care physicians have but they can't take the person by the hand and walk them into their first AA meeting," said Harper.

"Walking into your first AA meeting is the scariest thing you'll ever do in your whole life."

The new role of family physicians in treating addicts was applauded by Salvation Army spokesman Brian Venables.

"I think it's great. From my experience, the sooner you can get on it, the better. Someone who is still visiting their family doctor probably isn't at rock bottom yet -they've still got family, they've still got supports around them," said Venables.

"So if their addiction can be identified, then maybe they don't have to go through what we see on the streets."

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