By Stephen Ebbett
Chief Digital & Marketing Officer, American Addiction Centers
Thanks to Internet search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo, we can find anything we want or need online. From consumer goods to vacation packages and more, we can use search engines for just about any purchase.
But when it comes to the life or death issue of substance abuse, the most useful addiction resources are largely unknown and underutilized. For instance, a new study found that the U.S. government’s toll-free substance abuse helpline run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), receives little publicity.
Research has found that a significant number of people looking for help with addiction start by searching online. Young people, often considered “digital natives,” utilize online resources for addiction-related information at higher rates. Fifty percent of people under 35 indicate they search online to find treatment facilities; 60 percent of respondents under 45 claim that they would not choose a treatment provider for which online reviews are not readily available. With regard to this demographic, the data does not lie -- addiction treatment saves lives by reducing alcohol and drug related deaths. Recent CDC data shows that each time an additional treatment facility is opened that it leads to a 0.5 percent decline in the addiction-related mortality rate in the facility’s county. However, with more than 72,000 Americans dying from drug overdoses in 2017 - a two-fold increase in a decade - the need for comprehensive online treatment resources is more vital than ever before.
Unfortunately, there have been questions about the credibility of online resources in the addiction treatment space.
Due to a select handful of bad actors in the addiction industry, it has become more difficult for legitimate treatment providers to connect with patients online. Some opportunists have created deceptive online treatment directories, which route those seeking treatment to undisclosed treatment centers that pay for online patient referrals. These directories often include the names of several reputable treatment centers to attract site visitors and callers – but the endgame is to route callers only to a sole paid provider.
Other unethical players have even hijacked Google My Business listings of other facilities, substituting their phone numbers for those of other providers. American Addiction Centers (AAC) has experienced this firsthand, and is leading the charge in seeking and reporting these manipulations to Google. In addition, AAC has supported legislation at both the federal and state levels to prevent patient brokering and other egregious behavior by treatment providers.
At the same time, self-regulatory agencies and certification bodies are proposing policies that would make it difficult for legitimate online directories and resources to operate. This “broad brush” approach views commercial treatment directories as inherently misleading and harmful to consumers, when in fact they are one of the primary resources utilized by millions of individuals seeking treatment. Without these online directories, the availability of useful, free information will be severely restricted.
AAC operates a number of online treatment directories and informational resources -- including Rehabs.com and Recovery.org -- designed to help those struggling with addiction find information about treatment centers. These sites feature patient reviews as well as tips for picking a credible, high-quality facility, and include more than 1,500 listings for independent, non-AAC treatment centers. We work with any non-AAC facility that meets the basic listing standards of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to manage and edit their listings on our site, similar to how Google offers business listings with user-submitted reviews and contact information. These directories make clear that an AAC facility is not the only option and suggest that those seeking help browse the SAMHSA directory and non-AAC listings at Rehabs.com or Recovery.org.
Our online directories -- which function similarly to Yelp’s, Acadia Healthcare’s and SAMHSA’s directories -- are critical to ensuring that information is accessible to those in need. To date, AAC’s online directories have led to more than 1.8 million calls to non-AAC treatment providers from people searching for help, and has been well-received by patients and providers alike.
I’ve found that not everyone in the addiction treatment industry understands how AAC’s treatment directories work – and even found some treatment centers trying to lump our online directories into the category of bad actors I described above. To be clear, AAC’s online directories don’t make referrals to third party centers or misleadingly steer callers for profit. They are simply directories, that let the consumer look through broad lists of providers as they begin to make a choice for themselves – no different than Google’s directories or the Yellow Pages. It’s also important to understand that building truthful directories is so useful to consumers, that the right to build directories are protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It takes a lot of hard work to build and maintain a useful treatment directory and we invite any consumers or other treatment providers to have dialogue with us.
AAC has sought to meet with the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) and invited all of each of its member organizations to take an online tour of our directories to provide feedback. We’ve also tried to understand and combat why campaigns to “delist” from directories are being promoted by some organizations. While we certainly support recourse against directories that hijack phone numbers and mislead consumers, trying to restrict legitimate listing directories like AAC’s restricts access to resources and harms those struggling with addiction who already face significant hurdles to finding a quality treatment provider.
The addiction treatment industry is maturing into the digital age, and needs a continuous, transparent dialogue about online directories and marketing. To do our part, AAC is involving patients in the discussion to gain their perspectives by working with Young People in Recovery.
We are hopeful that our peers in the addiction treatment industry, including NAATP and other leading for- and nonprofit providers, will join with us to support access to treatment through these legitimate online directories that are used by millions of people. These online resources are critical lifelines that enable people struggling with substance use disorders to privately search for treatment options at no charge, while reducing the shame and stigma of asking for help. Guiding people to appropriate treatment must be a moral imperative for everyone in the industry. Legitimate online directories, regardless of who operates them, will be part of the solution. Treatment providers should be putting patient’s interests first as the discussion over directories and online marketing evolves.