By Ruchi Dhami
Chief Ethicist, American Addiction Centers
“Reform” Efforts Should Not Limit Access to Legitimate Online Addiction Treatment Resources
Recovering from addiction is hard work, for both those who need help and the treatment professionals who give it. Unfortunately, there are a minority of unscrupulous actors in the industry that don’t have the patient’s best interests in mind. Some of these companies operate seemingly unbiased addiction treatment websites and call centers, but are actually paid to steer customers to certain treatment facilities for their own benefit. That is wrong -- and state and federal legislators have taken appropriate efforts to stem this and similar modes of deceptive marketing.
No one questions the need to make sure patients have access to credible information as they begin their journey to recovery. So when some prominent organizations in addiction treatment began raising awareness about questionable marketing tactics -- by alerting policy makers or search engines to some of these unethical marketing practices -- it seemed motivated by a desire to protect patients.
Unfortunately, it has become clear that some of these prominent voices in the addiction treatment industry are pushing a divisive “good guys versus bad guys” narrative about addiction treatment. Rhetoric broadly accusing treatment providers of being “greedy,” “corrupt” and “cheaters” -- simply because they are for-profit entities and represent increased competition -- is reckless and irresponsible.
That’s why American Addiction Centers has filed a lawsuit against the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP). The new lawsuit, which can be read here, alleges that NAATP and certain organizations that are NAATP members, for anti competitive reasons, are wrongfully targeting AAC’s online treatment directories and informational resources -- including Rehabs.com and Recovery.org. These sites are critical, credible and accurate resources for those trying to find information about addiction and treatment -- and there’s not enough of these kinds of resources online.
Any effort to limit access to credible information about treatment hurts those suffering from addiction and reduces their odds of recovery. In fact, one recent study by the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that 20.7 million Americans needed treatment for substance use disorder in 2017 but only 2.5 million of those received care from a treatment facility. This treatment gap is largely due to the fact that the vast majority of people suffering from the disease of addiction don’t actually realize they have a problem.
The rare and intermittent instances in which addicts and alcoholics recognize that they have a problem -- referred to as moments of contemplation -- offer precious opportunities for change. Because of this, the leading addiction treatment advocacy organization Shatterproof has recognized the need for rapid access to care in the critical moments that addicts seek it. Thus, information about treatment options and access to care, including online resources, should be readily accessible in order to minimize barriers and resistance to treatment.
We also know that a majority of addicts and alcoholics begin their treatment journey with online research. Online search engines and sites -- whether Google, Bing, Facebook or otherwise -- are critical to ensure patients can maintain privacy as they begin their search for treatment. Credible directories such as AAC’s empower patients to make informed treatment decisions by comparing a wide array of treatment options.
What’s equally troubling is NAATP’s efforts to curtail access to online marketing channels like Google’s advertising platform. This has severely limited the information about treatment options that patients can find online. This prevents those in distress from finding care options that could be best suited to their needs.
Misleading attacks like those by NAATP make it harder for people to access treatment resources. The conversation about the treatment industry shouldn’t be a “good guys versus bad guys” discussion. That narrative demeans the vast majority of treatment professionals who devote their working lives to the very difficult job of helping addicts heal.
It is essential that the industry work together for meaningful reform that protects patients. This must include an open dialogue between all of the credible leaders in the field -- which include many organizations like AAC that have been misleadingly targeted by organizations like NAATP.
There are currently not enough voices at the table if we are going to work together to elevate standards of communication and care. Policy makers should understand that this is an industry that is filled with good guys, and that it’s possible to both do good and do well. The black and white narrative that some industry players are promoting is dispiriting to treatment professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to the cause of recovery. And it’s discouraging people who need treatment from finding it.
Ruchi C. Dhami, MA, is the Director of Brand and Design at American Addiction Centers where she oversees brand strategy and messaging, and provides oversight for the company’s directory and resource sites that connect consumers to information about treatment and their treatment options. Ms. Dhami has previously worked at The Cleveland Clinic in the Department of Bioethics, creating models for the transparent disclosure of physician-industry relationships, and studied the improvement of efficacy of conflict of interest reporting at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University where she served as a Research Ethics Fellow. At The Cleveland Clinic, Ms. Dhami served on a committee to create and implement a reporting platform for physicians to efficiently monitor payments made to them by industry partners. She received a Master’s degree in Bioethics from Case Western Reserve University, with a concentration in health care research ethics. Ms. Dhami also served as the Director of Market Insights and Development at Recovery Brands where she was responsible for the development and implementation of data collection efforts and research investigations to synthesize meaningful and relevant analyses for public consumption to aid in the decision-making process of those seeking addiction treatment. She is an expert in quantitative methodologies with extensive experience in utilizing survey tools to develop products and programs to increase efficiency. Ms. Dhami also authored several peer-reviewed publications, including a public call to action for the development of vital multi-metric outcomes measurements to improve the quality of care in the addiction industry.