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Treatment with a feminine touch

March 1, 2007
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Providers are finding business opportunities in gender-segregated care

More than seven million women in the United States are classified as substance dependent or substance abusers. Many also suffer from co-occurring disorders including some more common in women, such as eating disorders. To meet this need, some addiction treatment providers are creating residential programs specifically for women. “I would not say that it's an avalanche, but there's certainly a trend in that direction,” says Ron Hunsicker, DMin, president/CEO of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP).

Gender-specific treatment isn’t new, but the way it is being implemented has changed. Dr. Hunsicker says that in the past, gender-specific treatment “meant that women would be housed in separate quarters. But those women still ate meals with men, and their care options weren’t different.” Now some believe that segregating the sexes, not only for residential housing but treatment as well, makes good healthcare and business sense.

Among the women-only residential programs that have opened in recent years is Seabrook House's MatriArk Family Center in New Jersey. Opened last year, the 42,000-square-foot residential substance abuse treatment center is for women who want to reunify with their children, explains Matthew Wolf, Seabrook's vice-president for business operations.

Wolf says it's too soon to determine if the program is working from a financial perspective, but it is attracting government payers' attention. MatriArk has received more than $4.2 million in state block grant funds. Seabrook has demonstrated to state officials that “treating women and getting them well is a cost savings to all involved,” says Wolf. An external evaluator hired by Seabrook found that 62% of patients who have completed the program are clean and sober after a year, which Wolf reports is an improvement over previously nonsegregated efforts. Seabrook is pursuing other funding sources, as well. Seabrook House Foundation launched a campaign last year to raise about $2 million, which includes naming opportunities for different areas in the new center.

Seabrook has been aggressively marketing MatriArk, using billboard, print, and online advertising. Seabrook's Internet advertising is a “pay for click” campaign using Google and some smaller search engines. “It gets us tremendous results, but it's expensive,” admits Wolf. Seabrook also pays for keyword ranking so that its name appears in the top five results when searchers are looking for information on drug rehabilitation for women. “We have seen from 2005 to 2006 a 300% increase in Internet referrals,” says Wolf.

The Hazelden Foundation has been implementing gender-specific treatment for more than 50 years, and this past September it opened its Women's Recovery Center at its Center City, Minnesota, campus. With expansion planned this year, the center will enable Hazelden to increase its capacity for treating women with drug and alcohol addiction by 37%. It certainly needs the space: Hazelden has seen a four-fold increase in demand for services for women in the past four years, notes Brenda Iliff, the center's clinical director. “Even with the added beds, the building was full within a month,” she says. From a treatment standpoint, segregating the sexes can improve the healing process, Iliff believes: “The opposite sex can be very distracting,” especially with “fluctuating emotions of early recovery.”

The new facility was developed with input from alumni, patients, and staff. “What we came up with was that privacy was important but so was connection,” says Iliff. Therefore, the new facility has extra phone booths, vanities in each room, extra storage space for hair dryers and other personal items, and a crafts room for projects with children. Bedrooms are more commodious and are configured in three-bed clusters—a distinct departure from traditional dorm-like residential facilities (For more about the women's center, see the December 2006 issue of Behavioral Healthcare, page 37).

Another recently opened treatment center for women is the Orchid Recovery Center for Women, whose 18 beds are full every month says Executive Director Julie Queler. The Orchid's program features a holistic approach for treating substance abuse, employing “the aesthetics of healing” along with yoga, acupuncture, and various ancillary services. After hiring Dr. Karen Dodge, who wrote a dissertation on gender-specific substance abuse, and environmental consultant Gay Kanuth, the Orchid was able to pinpoint the needs of women struggling with substance abuse and construct a healing environment, adds Queler (For more on the Orchid's healing environment, see the September 2006 issue, page 52). The Orchid does not have expansion plans, as Queler says that research indicates that women heal more fully in a small environment.

The Orchid operates on a cash-pay basis, with a minimum 30-day stay and an average stay of 60 days. The gender-segregation approach appears to be a selling point not only for women but for their husbands and parents as well. “They feel safer with a loved one coming to a women-only facility,” Queler explains.

Other women-only residential programs have opened across the country, and Dr. Hunsicker notes that men might benefit from gender-segregated care too. For Queler, there's no better way to deliver residential substance abuse treatment: “We have found that at the end of the day, women need to be with women in treatment. I can’t think of one good reason for them to be in a coed facility.”

Michael Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer.