SDHB drops ketamine research

Dr Brad Strong. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Dr Brad Strong. Photo: Gregor Richardson

The Southern District Health Board has abandoned its support for trials of the drug ketamine as a treatment for depression.

However, a University of Otago study of ketamine and its effect on patients with anxiety disorders will continue.

Ketamine, used as an anaesthetic by doctors and vets, can also be abused as a recreational drug.

Its possible therapeutic qualities have been researched for some years, and since 2015 the board has sponsored trials which offered ketamine therapy to some patients.

''This was a pioneering approach, which the DHB supported to help determine whether it could help those with depression that has resisted other treatments,'' board mental health medical director Brad Strong said.

However, it had not seen the effectiveness it had hoped from its ketamine clinic, the treatment benefiting about 20% of patients.

''Our experience echoes international research in this emerging field that casts substantial doubt on the current practice of extended use of ketamine for those with treatment-resistant depression,'' Dr Strong said.

Some patients had experienced positive outcomes from ketamine treatment, but those examples were too few and too sporadic for the board to continue its sponsorship of the clinical trials, Dr Strong said.

''We need more research to better help us target treatment, to ensure the resources we have can make the greatest difference possible.''

There are now seven patients under treatment at the clinic and a further nine on the waiting list.

Patients being treated with ketamine will remain on the drug until a new treatment plan is agreed.

University of Otago mental health researcher Prof Paul Glue said his ketamine trial was researching a ''very different'' patient group, which is why it would continue.

Use of the drug in Dunedin has been controversial.

The health and disability commissioner ruled in 2013 that prescribing ketamine to 11 patients with treatment-resistant depression was ''borderline'' and the SDHB should tighten up on off-label drug prescriptions.

Subsequently, a ketamine clinic was set up to ensure each patient was properly informed and standard procedures were followed.

Otago Mental Health Support Trust chief executive Grant Cooper said it was vital the patients on the trial were fully consulted on any changes to their treatment.

''It is important that any treatment has better outcomes for people, and my hope would be if people were coming off, they were offered other therapeutic support that the patient believes would be beneficial for them,'' Mr Cooper said.

Where to get help

Suicide/depression related

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666

Alcohol Drug Helpline: 0800 787 797

General mental health inquiries: 0800 44 33 66

The Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757


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