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Website ownership creates an ethical question

October 19, 2015
by Julie Miller, Editor in Chief
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Psych Central founder and CEO John Grohol has been doing some ambitious digging into the various websites operated by American Addiction Centers’ (AAC) parent company. As we reported earlier, AAC owns several sites that market to consumers looking for addiction treatment.

For example, we reported that AAC acquired Referral Solutions Group for a whopping $32 million in cash and stock. The group's network of websites has been a referral source for many different treatment centers, but now the sites are all owned by AAC. It’s evident to industry insiders that the sites, regardless of their neutral-looking appearance, prioritize AAC’s intake.

Grohol believes consumers are being misled by the sites because it’s not disclosed who operates them. In a recent article, he warns consumers “to simply stay away from any addiction-run website” (his emphasis) and notes that in other industries, this type of marketing would be considered a conflict of interest.

Mental health site

The trend has hit home for Grohol.

In 1995, he built MentalHelp.net, a site with mental health content and a search function to help consumers find therapists. Grohol has since left the organization but recently discovered that the AAC enterprise now owns MentalHelp.net, too. The site no longer posts fresh content, and the therapist finder appears to be absent. Not surprisingly, the homepage offers consumers help for addiction, with a toll-free number that goes straight to AAC intake. 

Grohol lists the sites known to be owned by AAC’s parent company:

  • Rehabs.com;
  • Recovery.org;
  • Dependency.net;
  • ProjectKnow.com;
  • Centers.org;
  • Psychguides.com;
  • Substance.com; and
  • Mentalhelp.net.

Keep in mind that within the nesting dolls of AAC, you'll find Referral Solutions Group, Recovery Brands, Sober Media Group and Taj Media. I’m sure there are probably others.

New ethics group

Marketing ethics continues to be a topic of discussion in the behavioral health industry. In fact, the new Addiction Treatment Marketing Organization (ATMO) aims to support and distinguish the treatment centers that operate according to a code of ethics that emphasizes transparency and responsibility.

I recently spoke to ATMO founder Ben Cort, business development manager of CeDAR, who tells me his phone has been ringing off the hook. Treatment centers are eager to differentiate themselves through this sensible self-regulation. Clearly, it’s far better to agree on industry standards now than to risk regulatory intervention later, but for the centers that have signed on to ATMO, that motivation seems secondary. They all say that they truly believe in protecting the integrity of the industry.

What’s ironic is that Recovery Brands, one of AAC’s recently acquired marketing machines, plans to identify ATMO treatment centers in its online listings.

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Julie Miller

Editor in Chief

Julie Miller

@editor_JMiller

Julie Miller has more than 14 years of experience observing, analyzing and reporting on various...