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Centers sign on to marketing ethics group's code of conduct

October 8, 2015
by Gary A. Enos. Contributing Editor
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An organization formed to promote ethical marketing of addiction treatment services has secured its first core group of treatment centers that have signed on to a nine-point code of conduct, a document that many hope will serve as a practice standard for the industry.

Addiction Treatment Marketing Organization (ATMO) founder Ben Cort believes the presence of major names in treatment that have agreed to sign on to the code will spur many other facilities to join. Some of the initial participants include The Meadows, Jaywalker Lodge, Menninger, Muir Wood, The Refuge, McLean Hospital, Lakeview Health, and the facility where Cort serves as director of professional relations, CeDAR. “This is a list that everyone else in the industry will want to be associated with,” says Cort.

ATMO is designed to raise awareness of marketing ethics issues, particularly with regard to the Internet marketing that has become so pervasive in the addiction treatment field, and to assist the field in efforts to self-regulate these practices. An online description of ATMO states, “Driven by sea changes in the addiction treatment industry, some center marketers are engaging, whether knowingly or inadvertently, in questionable practices and in some cases illegal practices in an effort to protect or increase revenue.”

Provisions of code

The introduction to the provisions of the ATMO code states, “In order to maintain what is left of our integrity and to restore what has been lost, the undersigned organization pledges to operate in a way that honors the helping profession in which we serve.”

Here is a verbatim listing of the code's provisions, to which 18 organizations had agreed as of the beginning of October:

  • We will remain transparent and honest in our interaction with families, patients and the professional community. We will not represent services outside of our abilities and will represent only what our program is capable of providing.

  • We will maintain a working knowledge of the Substance Use Disorder continuum of care and will refer patients into the continuum at the proper point no matter our program's scope of services.

  • We will consider the needs and well-being of the patient over our own financial benefit.

  • We will refer patients out as needed with no expectation of reciprocation.

  • We will not accept or pay fees to organizations or individuals for patient referrals.

  • We will honor our legal responsibilities including confidentiality requirements under HIPAA and 42 CFR Part 2.

  • We will assume responsibility for the tactics used by third party firms we employ.

  • We will not engage in intentionally misleading Internet advertising either paid or organic.

  • We will not exploit our patients.

Gina de Peralta Thorne, vice president of marketing at Jacksonville, Fla.-based Lakeview Health, has been one of the original steering committee members at ATMO, and has worked at Lakeview during a period in which the facility created a more balanced marketing strategy less dependent on what she calls “black hat” tactics. She believes it will be important for members of the group to monitor one another's activities, so that organizations aren't simply signing a pledge but behaving otherwise.

“There needs to be peer accountability,” Thorne says.

She and Cort agree that tactics such as paying for referrals and misrepresenting one's services online occur out of a combination of factors. While some new entrants to the field don't know better and are easily led by the example of others, Thorne says, there are those who know what they're doing is wrong but proceed anyway. She says of the latter group, “They treat the industry as competition. The biggest competition we have in the industry is addiction itself.”

Acknowledgment of pledge

Recovery Brands, the American Addiction Centers-owned operator of the Rehabs.com treatment locator site, intends to identify in some fashion in the site's online listings those facilities that sign on to the ATMO pledge. Ruchi Sanghani, Recovery Brands' director of research, says the organization sees this as a feature akin to a facility's membership in the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP), which merits its own designation on Rehabs.com.

“For treatment providers, this is another vehicle for building credibility,” says Sanghani.

She says she has emphasized to ATMO organizers the importance of seeing the code as a living document. She adds, “Establishing a standard will help restore the industry's perception of digital marketing. ... There are just so many misconceptions surrounding the digital market.”

Besides hoping that treatment centers will continue to embrace the code, Cort is working to establish a separate entity that beginning in 2016 would conduct basic and more advanced training of marketing professionals. The basic course would address the history and philosophical underpinnings of the field, as well as best practices, he says.

“Ethics is the new buzzword,” Cort says. “But saying you're honest doesn't make you honest.”

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