Bank account, not need, determines endometriosis pain-relief access

Erica Brown suffers from endometriosis. The codeine restrictions will make her condition more difficult to manage. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos
Erica Brown suffers from endometriosis. The codeine restrictions will make her condition more difficult to manage. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Endometriosis sufferers say long waiting times for specialists as well as restricted access to pain medication means treatment for the condition is defined by their bank accounts and not by their needs.

Difficulties in accessing pain medications have come into sharp relief as pain sufferers and medical professionals prepare for medications containing codeine to become available only with a prescription from a GP from Thursday onwards.

Erica Brown says the ban is just one element of difficulty for women suffering endometriosis, a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus, causing pain and sometimes infertility. It affects one in 10 women.

Fairfax Media revealed this month that it takes nine to 12 months for public patients to get an appointment at the pain management unit at Canberra Hospital, but Ms Brown waited two years for her first appointment, and although the treatment has been helpful, the difficulty in scheduling follow up appointments as a public patient contributes to her pain.

"If you don't have money then your treatment options are very limited," she said. 

"Basically my treatment is defined by my bank account."

However, Canberra women's health practitioner Dr Kelly Teagle believes the problems with codeine outweigh the benefits for endometriosis sufferers, preferring more targeted approaches.

"Honestly i have to say codeine doesn't have a big role in my management of women with endometriosis pain," she said.

The ban on pharmacists supplying medications like Panadeine Forte and Nurofen Plus is intended to cut down on people abusing the medications, with Health Minister Greg Hunt saying on Tuesday that the change would save up to 100 lives a year.

"We know around the world in many places there is an opioid crisis. Codeine is part of that family. In other countries such as the United States and the UK, the decision was taken long ago to put these opioids on a prescription basis," he told ABC radio.

Ms Brown criticised simplistic responses from medical professionals suggesting holistic approaches to pain management in media coverage around the codeine ban.

"If we were able to cure our chronic pain by doing some yoga, we'd be doing that," she said.

The federal government announced an action plan to target the condition last year and an $160,000 research grant to fund better treatment.