Over-the-counter painkillers can be harmful to individuals, who may be unknowingly ingesting a chemical cocktail. A recent study from the University of Adelaide indicated that painkillers advertised as ‘safe’ are putting many Aboriginal people in hospital due to a lack of understanding about the associated potential risks.





The qualitative study used 31 participants, who were aged from 20 to 40 years old and living in the northern, western and northeastern suburbs of Adelaide, to find what they knew about painkillers and how they chose which ones to buy. “They had very clear expectations that something should be done and they were disappointed that it wasn’t,” says Research Professor Dr Charlotte de Crespigny. “Aboriginal people already have a lot of challenges, often have multiple health problems and they’re doing the best they can.

If they’re being told that these medicines are safe, they are going to use them. “We’re not saying this is exclusive to only Aboriginal people, it’s a national issue that has to be taken up.” Among the findings it was determined that Aboriginal people may be more vulnerable when it comes to painkillers due to factors like not being able to read packaging due to eye sight or the terminology used.

“There should be far better access to culturally appropriate plain English forms of information on these products,” she says. All the participants had one or more medical conditions and were taking prescribed medication as advised, but when these are mixed with painkillers the consequences can be devastating. For example, serious adverse reactions can occur in people with cardiovascular disease, asthma, gastric ulcers and other conditions. “Three out of 31 had had recent blood transfusions. They weren’t necessarily overusing them or misusing painkillers, they were using them as they thought they should,” says Charlotte.

“If you start mixing these drugs with other prescribed medications you can begin to see what a cocktail it is.” The group came up with recommendations on how this issue can be fixed and one was better education for health care professionals when advising Aboriginal people on properly taking medications and more culturally appropriate training. “It’s up to the health system to be taking more responsibility in how we advise our Aboriginal community members and giving them the support and information they need.”

Not only did the painkillers affect them directly but, more often than not, the participants were giving them to their children as well. “They didn’t know that there were very different trade names for the same medicines and they could have been taking or giving their family members more than the needed dose,” she says. A vital person in the research was local elder Coral Wilson, who helped instil trust in the group. “Having Coral with us who they knew and trusted really strengthened the qualitative data,” says Charlotte. “She worked with me throughout all these conversations.” The study hopes to draw more attention to this
issue and it has proven successful in getting the message out there. “The findings were very enlightening. They were very happy to be invited to talk about this issue,” she says.

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