In recent years, large amounts of capital have infused the behavioral health treatment industry, causing a proliferation of facilities and the generation of over $35 billion in annual revenue¹. While statistics reflect a large need for more addiction treatment services and beds, many facilities that were previously private pay have begun to accept insurance, reflecting a more competitive landscape.
Treatment providers in this sector engage in a spectrum of activities, from hiring salespeople to paying for internet ads, to ensure a healthy stream of patient referrals. Given the sensitive nature of our work, how can we ensure that our marketing activities are held to the highest ethical standards?
To date, marketing activities in the behavioral health field have been largely been unregulated. The documentary, The Business of Recovery, outlines some of the more questionable practices, including the use of referral fees to entice professionals to send referrals to a particular facility. The media has also covered the use of online sites that look like neutral resources designed to guide families, but actually link to call centers of a facility, or advertisements that may not accurately reflect the physical plant or services offered by a facility.
My concern with these practices is the lack of transparency we offer families if we engage in them. Most families interact with professionals in our industry when they are stressed, vulnerable and confused. If a family member looks at a facility’s website, he or she deserves to have an accurate representation of what the facility offers. If family members use an interventionist or an educational consultant to get someone into treatment, they deserve to know if that professional has a financial relationship with a specific institution.
Our industry is ripe for a regulatory overhaul, similar to the one in the pharmaceutical field three decades ago, where financial incentives, gifts, dinners and referral practices came under scrutiny. Do we need to wait for the government or a new regulatory agency to impose regulations upon us or can professionals in our industry convene and agree upon a set of ethical standards?
During my coursework at Harvard Business School, professors would encourage us to ask ourselves whether we could be comfortable with a certain behavior if it was published on the cover of the Wall Street Journal. I would like to propose a new test for our field: would you be comfortable with this practice if you were referring your son or daughter into treatment?