BALTIMORE – “Virtual” drug treatment — online therapy sessions conducted by home computer — works, according to a study released Friday.
A 50-patient pilot study published by the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment unveiled at a news conference Friday showed that participants in online drug addiction counseling were more satisfied with their treatment overall, compared to traditional group sessions.
The conference at the Institutes for Behavior Resources in Baltimore featured Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, former White House drug czar retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey and Maryland health department Deputy Secretary Renata Henry.
The study’s patients, from the Addiction Treatment Services program in Baltimore, had ongoing illicit drug use problems. Some were randomly selected to receive online treatment with eGetGoing, an online counseling center, or traditional counseling at a local treatment site.
The idea that addicts need to physically go to treatment is obsolete, said Gregory Warren, president of Baltimore City Substance Abuse Systems.
“(Addiction) is an illness that is progressive in nature, and every opportunity that we have to reach these individuals is valued,” said Kathleen Rebbert-Franklin, acting director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.
EGetGoing helps patients with severe and chronic abuse problems, and for $400 a month, they get a headset and software that brings the treatment home in a format similar to instant messaging.
Patients, without fear of being stigmatized by their problems, can log on to the site and attend virtual group sessions. Each group member is assigned a screen name and cannot be identified by the others.
Group members see real-time video of their counselor, but not each other, and talk to one another and the counselor as if they were face-to-face. It’s like an online forum with microphones.
“It’s another tool for health care providers,” said McCaffrey.
Adherence to treatment sessions is a big obstacle in addiction treatment, said Dr. Van King, of Johns Hopkins University, co-author of the study. The eGetGoing patients cited more convenience and privacy compared to traditional care.
Online patients attended 92 percent of their scheduled sessions, while those in traditional treatment attended 76 percent.
But the big question is “how can we employ this more in Maryland,” said Henry.
In Maryland, many addicts can’t get help because there are too few counselors and treatment centers, said Rebbert-Franklin.
“We need to explore new technologies to overcome the barriers,” she said.
Even with the potential success of online treatment, there are technical difficulties.
Nine of the selected participants were removed from the study after failing to adhere to mandatory computer software registration appointments. Four others were withdrawn either because they did not have a working computer at home or had problems connecting to the eGetGoing Web site.
“No approach is without limitations,” said H. Westley Clark, director for the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration. “If you don’t have a computer or access to the Internet, this form of treatment is not available to you.”
Those access problems could be significant, said Henry.
“Great intervention methods mean nothing unless we can get them into the field,” she said.
Glen Conrad, counselor at Institute for Behavior Resources who did not attend the conference, said the benefits of face-to-face counseling cannot be replaced with Internet sessions, unless the counselor could view the patients.
“Body language is so important when you’re a counselor,” Conrad said. “A patient can say ‘I’m fine’ and when you see them, you know they’re not.”
Virtual therapy may not be ideal, some experts acknowledged, but it can be a tool in the treatment arsenal.
“An individual’s pathway to recovery can be varied,” said Rebbert-Franklin. “There are some who will flourish with online counseling and others will need to face-to-face.”
“The ideal form of therapy would be face-to-face,” said Westley Clark citing his bias as a psychiatrist. “But I can’t help an empty chair. Sometimes it’s Internet or nothing.”