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Off-label drug use raising alarms in Canada

A new study says 11 per cent of drugs prescribed in Canada are being used for treatments for which they weren't approved.

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A new study has found that 11 per cent of medications are being prescribed "off label" in Canada, raising potential fears about unwanted side effects and other consequences.

Off-label prescribing refers to when drugs are dispensed for uses other than what the medication has received regulatory approval for. It's perfectly legal and can be beneficial, allowing doctors the freedom to try new drugs where others don't work or may have failed in a particular patient, for instance.

But a new study published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine and led by researchers at McGill University suggests there may be cause for concern with widespread off-label prescribing in Canada.

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Of the more than 250,000 prescriptions written for nearly 51,000 patients in Quebec from 2005 to 2009, about 11 per cent were off label, the researchers found. Of those, nearly 80 per cent lacked scientific evidence backing its use, according to the study.

About 26 per cent of off-label prescriptions were for central nervous system drugs, which can include antidepressants and anti-psychotics. About 17 per cent were for infection treatments, which can include antibiotics, while 15 per cent were for ear, nose and throat medications.

Older medications approved before 1981 were more likely to be prescribed off-label than newer ones approved after 1995. Doctors with high evidence-based practice scores were less likely to prescribe drugs off label, researchers said.

Have you ever been prescribed a drug off label?

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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