Alcoholics are being prescribed the wrong drugs - study

Alcoholics looking for medical help are more likely to be prescribed antidepressants than medicine directly targeting their addiction, new research has found.

Researchers at the University of Otago looked at 5000 patients who'd been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder by specialist mental health services in 2014.

They found 12.7 percent of them had been prescribed antidepressants and 5.6 percent the anti-psychotic drug quetiapine, but only 2.1 percent were given disulfiram and 0.7 percent naltrexone.

Disulfiram works by inducing the serious negative effects of a hangover immediately after the patient drinks any alcohol.

"If you drink while taking this medication you have a pretty toxic reaction and you're put off drinking again," study leader Ben Beaglehole told The AM Show on Friday.

Naltrexone works more slowly, reducing the desire to consume alcohol.

"You're more likely to drink less often, and lesser amounts," said Dr Beaglehole.

Ben Beaglehole.
Ben Beaglehole. Photo credit: The AM Show

Of those diagnosed with both alcohol use disorder and depression, 27.4 percent got antidepressants and 11.2 percent quetiapine, but only 2 percent were given disulfiram and 0.2 percent naltrexone.

Dr Beaglehole says it's not clear from the data why anti-alcohol drugs are used so infrequently.

"We could suspect that there's not enough doctors working in addiction services. As well as that, patients probably present with symptoms and depression and anxiety far more than they do with issues related to their drinking."

He says when patients present with signs of both alcoholism and depression, the first thing doctors and support services should tackle is the former.

"We think that all clinicians should just focus on the drinking and make that their main concern. We know that if people stop drinking, mood and anxiety are likely to improve."

One unexpected finding in the research was that almost two-thirds of those diagnosed with both depression and alcoholism were female - at odds with the fact men are more likely to abuse substances like alcohol.

"Studies that report dispensing according to gender typically find that women are substantially over-represented in dispensing databases," the research, published in Friday's issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal, said.

"These studies attributed their findings to differences in health-seeking behaviour between genders and prescribing practices of clinicians."

According to the Ministry of Health, one-in-five Kiwi adults drink hazardously.