Questionable marketing practices in the addiction treatment industry suddenly became very public in recent months, as a growing number of treatment leaders finally reached their breaking point regarding the crude but widespread strategy of using one facility's name to attract prospective patients to another. As the end of the year approaches, a group of treatment CEOs have begun discussing an organized response, even considering the possibility of legal action to combat bait-and-switch marketing.
The flurry of activity also generated counter-accusations. Some CEOs alleged that those who took up a whistleblowing role were demonstrating a lack of understanding of Internet marketing, adding that they should have kept their concerns within the treatment center fraternity. But one marketing executive who has worked to reform practices in her own facility sees telling parallels between this debate and what commonly happens in the clinical settings these executives oversee.
“In the rooms, when you see another person not working to support their recovery, you're encouraged to call someone out,” says Gina de Peralta Thorne, vice president of marketing at Lakeview Health in north Florida. Thorne says this is precisely what Cirque Lodge CEO Gary Fisher did after learning twice within a few months that his Utah facility's name was being used online to generate consumer calls to prominent treatment chains elsewhere.
Thorne says that prior to Lakeview's early 2013 sale to a Texas-based private equity firm, the organization relied heavily on “black hat” marketing techniques that encouraged using any strategy possible to “make calls happen.” She adds, “They didn't have a lot of rapport with referral sources,” and says the facility's reputation in the field largely had been shaped by the critical comments of people who had left the company.
Under the direction of new president and CEO Roy Serpa, Lakeview would downsize its Internet marketing team and divert resources toward direct outreach with other treatment providers (it still employs basic SEO strategies to attract patients as well). “In this business, it's all about relationships,” says Thorne. She adds that it took about a year to reshape Lakeview's standing in the field, and now some facilities that didn't want to associate with it have offered testimonials.
Today, Lakeview seeks to list the names of other providers on its website, wanting to build relationships with facilities it can refer to when it cannot help a certain individual. “We have an opportunity to work collectively to make a big difference,” says Thorne, considering the vast number of people with substance use needs who have received no services. “Why are we fighting among one another for the 10%?” she asks.
Thorne believes it is important to air concerns about the field's marketing practices in an open forum. She and other marketing leaders appear on the brink of announcing an initiative to define a more prominent role for marketers in the discussion.
Cirque Lodge's Fisher made his views quite clear in an e-mail this month to several colleagues. “I think that all of the aforementioned operators just rely on our professional acumen to either say nothing or to be so polite as to just let the action continue,” he wrote. “Everyone (all the people we do business with) needs to be alerted to this, hopefully to the point that we (or any of our colleagues) don't do business or even associate with them until they change their tactics and get right (make amends) to the professional community.”
To Thorne, the exercise is about demanding the same honesty of oneself as a facility does of its patients. “Why do we need to make it more difficult for them to trust us?” she says.