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VR, AI & ketamine: A new era of psychedelic teletherapy?



Health Tech World hears from PsychMD, a ketamine teletherapy service launching in the coming weeks about the transformative potential of AI, VR and telehealth in psychedelic medicine. 

Over the last two decades, a renewed interest in the medical benefits of psychedelic substances has been shaking up the psychiatry field.

Throughout this time, substances like psilocybin, MDMA and LSD have remained on the list of Schedule I drugs in the US and the UK, restricting research.

However, in the last two years, momentum has grown with the opening of numerous centres dedicated to psychedelic medicine. Significant steps have also been made by regulators to accelerate research.

Esketamine, the more potent cousin of ketamine, became the first psychedelic substance to gain approval from the FDA for the treatment of mental health conditions, specifically major depressive disorder and treatment-resistant depression.

That was 2019. The treatment has since gained traction with hundreds of dedicated practices popping up across the US.

Now, one company is aiming to bring ketamine therapy into the home through telemedicine.

PsychMD is the “passion project” of company president, Dr Bryan Henry. As an ex-military serviceman, he is familiar with ketamine therapy.

The drug has proven to be an effective treatment for PTSD among veterans and Dr Henry himself has benefited from the drug.

Through the platform, a patient is assigned a virtual trip sitter to guide them through the process and an Oculus System is sent to their door to create a calming environment for the therapy process.

The intentions of the session are inputted into the system which, though AI, speaks to the patient during the process, guiding them through the journey based on their unique goals.

PsychMD aims to launch the platform in the Autumn of this year following promising results in pilot programmes.

One project with 60 veterans suffering from conditions including PTSD and anxiety achieved a success rate of 98 per cent.

PsychMD is a subsidiary of Peter MD, North America’s largest online men’s health clinic.

The telehealth clinic, and its sister company Petra MD, offer hormone therapy for men and women.

Health Tech World sits down with the president and brainchild behind PsychMD, Dr Bryan Henry to hear about his personal journey with ketamine therapy, the power of AI, VR and telemedicine in widening access to the novel treatment and the future of psychedelic teletherapy.

You have described PsychMD as a passion project of yours.

How did you first come across ketamine therapy and where does your passion stem from?

2019 was my first ketamine treatment. It was suggested by a few of my special operations friends.

So much data and research is coming out and beginning in 2019, that is really when we started seeing this research and seeing that this is actually feasible, this is tangible.

                             Dr Bryan Henry

We can actually put our hands on this.

Since then, I’ve been on successful treatments to this day. I’m still on ketamine therapy.

I guess you could say I’m the lab rat or the workbook for PsychMD.

What has ketamine treatment done for you personally?

I suffer from what’s called myalgic encephalomyelitis, a [central nervous system disorder]. It’s basically chronic fatigue so I’m constantly tired.

I was diagnosed in 2019 and I could barely get out of bed in the morning.

I chalked it up all these years to PTSD and severe depression or medication-resistant depression.

I spoke to some friends undergoing these treatments.

At the time they were doing some other treatments like Ibogaine and other psychedelics as well. Ketamine seemed to be the safest to me.

I’ve never done any drugs in my life so it was a little bit scary, but honestly, ketamine changed the way I look at the world.

As long as you’re doing your intentions and the therapy correctly, it really changes your outlook and rewires the brain.

To this day, I take two treatments a week and I’m off all my medications. It’s about as good a success story as it gets.

As a company, you already have experience in telehealth. How did you adapt the platform for psychedelic therapy?

Obviously, it’s a completely different platform, [but] we’re able to take that application and the foundation and build out on top of it an application for ketamine.

It needs to be monitored so what we have are trip sitters that will sit with you on our app interface while you’re doing your therapy or on your journey.

Our application has a lot of other features involved to really give feedback to our providers to make sure that our patients are happy.

How are you bringing AI and VR into the picture?

It’s cool what tech and AI is doing for psychedelic and I think we’re gonna see a lot more of that into the future.

AI is really the future of psychedelic medicine.

Ketamine is a little bit scary for the average individual. It is an anaesthetic at the end of the day and it’s also a dissociative narcotic, so you’ve got to be careful.

For new patients, we utilise the Oculus, which has a few different apps we use. It puts you into your own dream-theme state.

It walks you through the whole process and speaks to you about your intentions, whether you’re having a bad day, whether you’re stressed out or you’re depressed, etc.

It’s right there in your ears and it’s right there in your face so you don’t get distracted by what’s going around with you so you can just focus on what your intentions are.

It is the AI model that’s creating this.

What does the landscape look like for ketamine treatment in the US right now?

It’s a burgeoning market, for sure. The growth rates are through the roof. The compound annual growth rate is 70 per cent.

We’re looking at $6.2 billion (£4.8bn) within four years of a market.

Again, it comes back to the research and data that’s been done so well. Not only ketamine, but psychedelics in general are definitely a wave of the future.

But in spite of this boom, ketamine clinics are closing. What are the reasons for this?

These are physical offices. You have different sets of issues when you run a physical office – overhead, staffing, corporate headquarters.

The sector is not that strong yet, so you have to be really careful of the model that you operate under, especially in these tough economic times.

That’s one good thing about telemedicine; it decreases our overhead. We’re able to offer this at a much more affordable price.

I think that one of the things about the physical locations is they’re just priced way too high.

They’re priced out of everybody’s budget. A combination of poor management and economic times has led to a downfall for some of those clinics.

Ketamine Wellness Centers have shuttered their doors, and we’re seeing videos of veterans going without treatment.

That can be very detrimental [with] any type of PTSD. You have to stay on treatment. You can’t just come off it cold turkey.

Are there any other telemedicine services doing a similar thing in the psychedelic space or is this a unique concept?

As of now, we’re the first national company to utilise AI, [but] you’re going to start seeing a lot more companies doing this.

In terms of oral ketamine, there are definitely some other players in the space. They’re smaller than we are.

They’re really geographic while we’re national. They treat maybe 12 states in a geographical area, but we’re coast to coast.

What are your plans for growth once the product launches?

We don’t want to grow so fast that we’re getting outside of our operational standards.

It’s going to be a slow move up and then as soon as we find that sweet spot we can we can really ramp up very quickly.

We’re headlining the Wonderland Conference in November which is the largest psychedelic conference. That’s really going to be the major launch date.

How about the landscape for telemedicine and ketamine therapy on a wider scale? What does the future hold?

The Ryan Haight Act is a law passed in 2008 that requires a patient to be seen in person before they can be seen through telemedicine for a controlled substance.

During the pandemic, the Ryan Raight Act was waived.

The DEA is now just getting the act put back in place. It looks like November 2023.

We work closely with the DEA, but there’s just no telling when that’s going to really happen.

Once that does happen, it’s going to change the landscape and the trajectory of what we’re doing.

It’s safe to say we’re probably one of about three compliant clinics that practice nationally with the Ryan Haight Act in place.

It’s really going to all depend on what the FDA and the DEA decide so it’s tough to say until the end of this year what that landscape will look like.

But, we see nothing but expansion.

The growth, accessibility and affordability are there, so we project a large trajectory of growth within the next eight quarters.

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