Too expensive?


I frequently point to health professional recovery programs when discussing the effectiveness of drug-free treatment when it’s delivered in the appropriate dose, frequency and duration. They have stellar outcomes.

The programs were abstinence-based, requiring physicians to abstain from any use of alcohol or other drugs of abuse as assessed by frequent random tests typically lasting for 5 years. Tests rapidly identified any return to substance use, leading to swift and significant consequences. Remarkably, 78% of participants had no positive test for either alcohol or drugs over the 5-year period of intensive monitoring. … The unique PHP care management included close linkages to the 12-step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and the use of residential and outpatient treatment programs that were selected for their excellence.

I generally get two counter-arguments:

  1. That health professionals have more recovery capital and are more likely to recover than other addicts.
  2. That treating everyone in this manner would be too expensive—we’ve made a decision, as a culture, that we’re willing to invest this time and capital into addicted doctors but we can’t do it for everyone.

I want to respond to these arguments in this post.

Health professionals have more recovery capital and are more likely to recover than other addicts.

There may be ways in which health professionals are unique in terms of recovery capital. This may be true. However, they also face a unique set of barriers when initiating recovery. A study of physician recovery programs(this excludes health professionals other than physicians) found high rates of opioid addiction (35%), high rates of combined alcohol and drug problems (31%) and high rates of psychiatric problems (48%). In addition, 74% were not self-referred.

Further, health professionals confront easy access to drugs and with this ease of access to prescription drugs, they often develop tolerance levels that dwarf those of street addicts.

Two pieces of folk wisdom may also be relevant:

  • “Doctors make the worst patients.”
  • “I’ve never met anyone too dumb for recovery, but I’ve met plenty of people who were too smart.”

So…they may have unique advantages, but they also have unique barriers. If there is a difference, is there reason to believe it’s stark enough to it wouldn’t work for other addicts?

Treating everyone in this manner would be too expensive.”

So, then, what is provided and what might it cost to replicate it?

First, what is provided:

The first phase of formal addiction treatment for two thirds of these physicians (69%) was residential care often for 90 days. The remaining 31% began treatment in an intensive day treatment setting. The participants at this stage usually received multiple intensive sessions of group, individual, and family counseling as well as an introduction to an abstinence-oriented lifestyle through required attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and Caduceus meetings (a collegial support association for recovering health professionals) and other mutual-aide community groups. Frequent status reports on treatment progress were required by most PHPs.

Use of pharmacotherapy as a component of treatment for SUDs was rare. Very few of the treatment programs or the medical directors of the PHPs used any of the available maintenance or antagonist medications.

After completion of initial formal addiction treatment, all PHPs developed a continuing care contract with the identified physician consisting of support, counseling, and monitoring for usually 5 years. Most PHPs (95%) also required frequent participation in AA, NA, or other self-help groups and verification of attendance at personal counseling and/or Caduceus meetings.

Physicians were tested randomly throughout the course of their PHP care, typically being subject to testing 5 of 7 days a week.

Physicians were typically tested an average of four times per month in the first year of their contracts for a total of about 48 tests in the year. By the fifth year, the average frequency of testing was about 20 tests per year.

How much would this cost to replicate? The following is based on Dawn Farm’s fees and costs.

  • $9000 – 90 days of residential treatment plus 17 aftercare groups
  • $2490 – 166 drug screens over 5 years
  • $8500 – 100 outpatient group sessions and 100 outpatient individual sessions
  • $4000 – 5 years of recovery support and monitoring from a Recovery Support Specialist with a caseload of 40 (A former head of Michigan’s monitoring program reports that their Case Managers have approximately 150 cases each.)
  • Total = $23,990

Now, this does not include one important element—a workplace monitor and a career employer making contract compliance a condition of employment. However, we offer transitional housing to clients for up to two years.

At less than $24,000 for the whole package, in the context of American healthcare spending, this does not seem to be an unsustainable burden and, in fact, is likely to be a very wise investment in pure financial terms.