An Inside Look at the Drug Rehab Industry’s Unethical Marketing Problem

Hi there,

Dan with Spooky Digital here.

The topic we're about to discuss is probably as personal to you as it is to me.

According to a recent report by the U.S. Surgeon General's office, one in seven in the USA will experience addiction in their lifetime. That makes it hard, if not impossible, to not know someone who's been affected.

Whether you're a treatment professional, loved one of an addiction sufferer, or someone struggling with these issues yourself, there's no doubt that unethical marketing in the treatment industry has touched your life in some way and probably caused some harm to you or someone you care about in the process.

While there are many amazing treatment professionals out there (some of whom you'll hear from in this special report), working hard to provide the treatment that saves live, and bring shattered families back together... there are an equal number of bad actors who seek to take advantage of desperate people to get rich and who think of nothing more than their bottom line.

The recovery industry has been rocked with scandal lately as more and more shady marketing tactics have continued to come to light. The revelations have exposed a variety of activity, ranging from unethical to downright illegal. A number of arrests have been made; shady drug rehabs and detox programs have been shut down; and even Google has been forced to jump in to regulate the type of ads recovery facilities are allowed to run.

In the $35 Billion addiction recovery industry, there's more than just money at stake.

Vulnerable people are fighting for the lives of their loved ones and looking for any helping hand they can find. What they're often finding instead is dead ends, tricks, and insurance scams.

As the CEO of a digital marketing agency specializing in marketing addiction treatment services, the question of how to honestly, ethically and legally help new patients find our clients is always on my mind.

I caught up with well-known recovery experts to get an inside look at this complicated issue, and find out what can be done to solve it once and for all. Enjoy, and let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Recovery Expert: Zach Snitzer

Owner/Director of Business Development

Maryland Addiction Recovery Center (VIEW ON FACEBOOK)

Baltimore, Maryland

Offering: Medically Supervised Outpatient Detoxification, Long-Term Extended Care treatment, Partial Hospitalization (PHP) day treatment, Intensive Outpatient (IOP) and outpatient (OP) substance abuse treatment and Continuing Care.

"We are in the midst of an epidemic where people are dying everyday- the last thing that should be happening is people dying because the addiction treatment industry failed them."

DAN: What are the most common forms of unethical marketing in addiction treatment (online and otherwise)? 

ZACH: Obviously the first and most recognizable now is patient-brokering (rehabs paying for patients, typically through a broker getting kickbacks for referring a patient to a specific facility.)

However, just as the Google restrictions on advertising are showing, online marketing is just as widespread and often just as unethical. Facilities posing as incorrect levels of care online and marketing themselves as such (an outpatient facility with a sober home marketing themselves as residential or inpatient treatment) or call centers online posing as objective “referral” sources when in truth they are selling those leads to treatment centers. This is the same thing as patient brokering. Or treatment centers that market themselves by creating landing pages that look objective online but filter those “leads” to their facility.

The final one I’d say are these ridiculous TV ads for addiction helplines. They are just another lead generation source, preying on individuals and families in crisis that do not know where to turn and then selling those leads to the highest bidding treatment center.


DAN: How does unethical marketing hurt patients? 

ZACH: First, it hurts patients because patients do not end up at the places that are the best clinical fits for their needs.

It also hurts the entire population suffering from addiction as a whole, because poor experiences from patients and families make them weary of addiction treatment as a whole. The addiction treatment field is thrown into a single category in the eyes of the consumer- “they are all just about the money” or “they are all unethical.” And the truth is, many are and many fit that description. However, we do not stop seeing doctors because many doctors get indicted for medicaid fraud or because numerous doctors have been unethical and created opioid pill mills.

As a consumer, we know that medical care is essential so we search out the many ethical providers that we know have our best interests as patients at heart. Overall, not just unethical marketing but unethical practices as a whole gives a black eye to the addiction treatment field and in the best case scenario stops people from seeking help. In the worst case scenario, tragedies occur and families lose loved ones because they ended up at a poorly run or clinically inappropriate facility that could handle their issues.

We are in the midst of an epidemic where people are dying everyday- the last thing that should be happening is people dying because the addiction treatment industry failed them.


DAN: How do you take care to avoid ethical problems when marketing your business?

ZACH: First and foremost, your clinical programming (your actual treatment) needs to be of the highest quality.

People forget, if a rehab is unethically marketing their product in numerous ways, what are we to think of the actual product they are marketing? If I find out a facility is paying for patients or stealing other rehab’s contact information online to filter patients their way, I automatically don’t trust the clinical services they are providing. If you are shirking your marketing I can only assume you are not providing the best patient care. So we make sure we are offering the highest quality in clinical services and make sure that is what we are offering. We are not marketing amenities or cool locations or spa-like destinations. Those things are great but they do not do anything to help someone recover from addiction.

This is a life-threatening illness. If a person has cancer, it’s great if they can get treated at the Four Seasons, but that would be an added bonus. If they have cancer they want to go to the best doctor or hospital that offers the best treatment for their illness. Addiction needs to be the same. So we make sure our clinical products is what we are marketing and that’s what we market- our clinical services for patients and families.

We are direct about who we are and what we do. Not only that, but we make sure to explain who we are not and who we don’t treat. Not everyone can be everything for everybody, but in the addiction treatment industry it seems that’s how most places want to appear to the consumer.


 What marketing methods are working best for your business?

ZACH: We find it best to traditionally market our services to the clinical and therapeutic communities. We believe in building relationships with other ethical treatment providers, treatment professionals and our local medical and therapeutic community and referring within that network of trusted providers.

We have also taken an educational approach to not just the treatment or professional community, but also the local community and public as a whole. Educating them on addiction and what treatment should look like. Making sure they are aware of how to find reputable, ethical providers. What questions to ask and what expectations they should have of the treatment provider and the treatment experience. We have found offering free community events or educational events is beneficial and we have also found social media to be an excellent platform to offer awareness and education to the community, not to market our services specifically but marketing addiction treatment as a whole.

We are also outspoken about who or what we will not work with in terms of providers and their practices. We have always taken the stance of transparency--in our clinical services, in who we treat, in the financial piece of treatment. That stance has been very successful for us in terms of the response we’ve received from both the community and within the addiction treatment field.

DAN: Do you have any other comments or thoughts on this issue?

ZACH: I think it is important to understand how fragmented the industry is as a whole. There are many unsavory and unscrupulous operations within the addiction treatment space (just like any other industry) so what is important is educating individuals, families and the community at large at how to go about becoming an educated consumer of addiction treatment.

The one thing that is almost universally agreed upon is that a chronic, progressive illness like addiction requires long-term, comprehensive treatment in order to make sure a patient is set up for their best chance at long-term success. Therefore, the addiction treatment industry needs to take the lead in educating the public about what treatment really needs to look like.

The idea of “I just need 28 days and I’ll be okay” is long gone. Patients are coming into treatment with much more complex mental health and psychiatric issues, trauma, sexual identification or relationship issues and family systems issues. So time is our friend.

However, the public still sees addiction treatment as something of a nuisance--the idea that I can’t take off 30 days from my life to deal with this. Unfortunately, people are dying. 

No one comes seeking addiction treatment at Stage 1. All patients are basically in Stage 4, yet it is the nature of addiction to fight against change (and therefore treatment.) Families often feed into this. However, you wouldn’t hear a patient or family arguing with a doctor about taking off work or school in order to receive long-term treatment for Stage 4 cancer, would you? Of course not, but that is where the stigma and misunderstanding plays a big part.

The addiction treatment industry needs to do more to educate around those issues of addiction and treatment and what quality treatment looks like and is needed in order for people and families to heal and recover. THAT is what we as a whole should be marketing to the public.

NEXT WEEK: We'll dive deeper into this issue, and hear from more experts who want to see change in the industry. Have you been affected by this issue in some way? Let me know in the comments below!

LEARN MORE: Learn about addiction treatment marketing and how you can ethically and effectively promote your program.

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Dan Sevigny

Dan Sevigny is an entrepreneur, digital marketing expert, and the CEO of Spooky Digital. Dan's work has been featured in: Entrepreneur, Inc, Forbes, Business Insider, Huffington Post, FOX 5, PIX 11, News 12, among others! Dan is most interested in using entrepreneurship as a way to promote health, happiness and positivity in the world.

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