ATLANTA — Ketamine, known as a “club drug” for its hallucinogenic effects, has also been shown to be effective in treating serious depression.
Rollbacks on pandemic rules for telehealth mean companies have been selling it online for home therapy.
While mental health advocates agree Georgians need better access to treatment, a local doctor told Channel 2′s Tom Regan that unsupervised use of the anesthetic drug could put patients at risk.
“Ketamine has risks. Ketamine is a dissociative drug,” said Dr. Michael Banov.
For years he’s been treating patients at his Marietta clinic intravenously with ketamine under medical supervision.
Banov’s patient Matt Drugg told Regan the out-of-body experience has worked miracles in improving his mental health.
“You’re basically rebooting the brain,” Drugg said. “It didn’t just minimize my symptoms, and make them more manageable, it’s literally put my bipolar into remission.”
Ketamine is prescribed off-label to treat severe depression, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts.
Clinical infusion therapy can cost thousands and isn’t covered by insurance.
That’s opened the door to online startups offering cheaper at-home therapy with oral forms of the drug.
“There’s a number of potential consequences to this,” Banov said. “One is patients can get hurt and there’s not the kind of safety constraints in place if something bad happens.”
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Companies like Mindbloom and Nue Life solicit telehealth ketamine treatments on social media.
Mindbloom posts clinicians screen patients to determine their suitability for therapy. It described its protocols safe and effective.
They include a virtual Mindbloom guide during the first session and an in-person peer treatment monitoring for all other sessions, arranged by the patient. No prior experience is needed for the monitors.
“This could be anyone in the house. It could be a spouse, a child a parent. It could be someone they can share their ketamine with,” Banov said.
“People doing it at home for the first time, it’s pharmaceutical Russian roulette. If they get a bad outcome, then what?” Drugg asked.
Providers of at-home ketamine therapy surged during the pandemic as the government waived requirements for in-person doctor visits.
“Now the issue is, whenever you’re prescribing a powerful controlled substance like (that), you want to make sure there’s adequate medical supervision,” said UGA law professor Fazal Khan.
Khan said with the public health emergency set to end this month, the future of allowing ketamine providers to prescribe online is uncertain.
“I really do think Congress has to step up and take the lead on defining what are going to be the rules after the public health emergency ends,” Khan said.
In December, Congress extended pandemic-era telehealth rule changes for another two years but continues to debate how many of those flexibilities should remain permanent, including prescribing powerful drugs online.
Ketamine telehealth companies contacted by Channel 2 Action News declined requests for an on-camera interview but in posted statements say at-home ketamine therapy is safe, effective, and affordable for those without access to treatments.
“That’s an alternative that’s been created for the people who can’t have access to it any other way,” Drugg said. “It’s better than nothing. But it’s not what it could be.”
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