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In this blog, fourth year medical student, Antonia-Oliva Roberts, discusses her extended essay, investigating opioid consumption in England, as part of the Final Honour's Scheme.

close-up of opioids spilling out of jar © Shutterstock

By Antonia-Olivia Roberts, undergraduate medical student, Green Templeton College, University of Oxford

After a holiday to Vancouver where I saw needles littering the streets and signs advertising ‘naloxone available here’, I knew I wanted to research the epidemiology of opioids for my Final Honours Scheme (FHS) Extended Essay. I was shocked at the scale of opioid addiction and interested in the multifactorial causes of the problem.

Unsure where to begin, I tried googling ‘opioid researcher Oxford’ to find potential supervisors. This led me to Dr Georgia Richards, a pharmacoepidemiologist based at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine. I feel superbly lucky that she has been such a supportive supervisor as well as an accomplished researcher! 

After my Extended Essay had been marked, Dr Richards suggested we adapt the essay into a publishable manuscript, and with her help, it was subsequently peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in the British Journal of Pain, which became available on Monday, 27 March 2023 (Roberts & Richards, 2023).

In my investigations, I found that the UK had the world’s highest rate of opioid consumption in 2019. Whilst opioid mortality rates in England have not reached the levels of the US, the harms of opioid use and mortality continue to increase. Based on our assessment of the epidemiologic definitions of epidemics and public health emergencies, we concluded that the opioid situation in England can be defined as an epidemic. However, it is not a public health emergency like in the US, as opioid addiction, overdose, and deaths have not yet threatened to overwhelm routine health services. Nevertheless, it also appears that England is facing a chronic pain emergency where investment and access to pain services for people with chronic pain and addiction are urgently needed. 

Researching and writing about the opioid crisis was my favourite part of my FHS year. I really loved the opportunity to delve further into a topic I was interested in and used evidence-based medicine methods to understand the significant impact of opioid use in England. I would like to thank Dr Georgia Richards, as I could not have done this without her support and encouragement.

My FHS extended essay was recently published in the British Journal of Pain: Is England facing an opioid epidemic?