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Addiction treatment in New Zealand has been seriously underfunded for many decades, National Addiction Centre Director Professor Doug Sellman told a symposium in Wellington today.

He also said treatment has been severely hampered because it is separated from the rest of the health service, especially primary care, such as GPs.

“What we have in this country is a form of ‘therapeutic apartheid’ which has got to be broken down if we are going to achieve better results from the $120 million currently being invested by the government in addiction treatment.

“Recovery from addiction is a long process for most people, but our current services are set up as if it is an acute disease like appendicitis that can be cured with an operation. What is needed is a much more responsive, longer-term model of care.”

Professor Sellman said two essential changes are that we should view every person with addiction and their family as having their ‘health home’ at their primary health care centre rather than at a specialist addiction service, and that the capability of primary care to provide addiction treatment must be significantly increased.

“It’s really important that primary health care staff play a major role in early intervention as well as in continuing care for people after they’ve had more intensive treatment.

“While specialist addiction treatment services need to increase in size to cope with unmet needs , they must also move much closer to (and even begin to overlap with) primary care.”

However, Professor Sellman warned that there are definite risks involved in making these structural changes.

“Specialist services are already fragile with high staff turnover and worrying demoralisation in many places.

“But the outcome will be improvements in quality of care and a reduction in the stigma attached to addictions. Job satisfaction among all health care workers involved in treating people with addictions will improve as well.”

Professor Sellman was one of nine drug policy experts speaking at the Through the Maze: Making treatment better Drug Policy Symposium organised by the New Zealand Drug Foundation and New Zealand Society on Alcohol and Drug Dependence

The purpose of the invitation only Symposium was to help focus the attention of policy makers and funders on ways to develop a high quality addiction treatment system that gets more people into treatment and retains those who are already in.

The Symposium’s organisers believe this is a challenging time for addiction treatment services in New Zealand. Alcohol and other drug abuse is the sixth highest contributor to New Zealand’s burden of disease. Yet successive governments have underinvested in addiction treatment services that are proven to reduce alcohol and other drug harm.

NZ Drug Foundation and NZ Society on Alcohol and Drug Dependence media release.

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