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Vancouver users feel judged by doctors: study

By Michael Mui, 24 Hours Vancouver

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Half of Vancouver opiate users surveyed as part of a University of B.C. research study felt health providers have stigmatized them — particularly those who have repeatedly failed to kick their addiction.

Heather Palis, lead author and PhD student in the UBC School of Population and Public Health, said the survey involved 175 long-term injection users from the Downtown Eastside.

It found that 50% of them have felt stigmatized when accessing health services in the past, and half of those who said they’ve been stigmatized said it’s happened more than five times.

“This actually does have an impact on how well people are doing in treatment,” she said.

“It’s important to just ask the question, whether or not it’s happening, but how do we make patients feel safe in coming to the health-care system?”

Palis said patients who’ve had multiple methadone treatment attempts, and those who’ve experienced abuse in childhood, felt especially stigmatized. Most users, 43%, felt the amount of stigma was mild, 28% felt it was moderate and 16% said the stigma they faced was severe — described as intentional physical or emotional harm.

Laura Shaver, president of the B.C. Association for People on Methadone, called stigmatization by health providers a systemic problem.

“When people are at the point when they’re thinking about going to treatment, they’re at their most low, they’re vulnerable, then they go to their doctor and they get this feeling — then they don’t even want to try,” she said.

“It’s felt a lot and it’s systemic.”

Examples Shaver provided include how some clinics don’t allow addicts to make their own appointments, and how users feel they’re being scrutinized by methadone-dispensing pharmacies to make sure no medication is “diverted.”

Shaver said a guideline and specific addictions training should be required for doctors and pharmacists as one solution.