Web-based rehab program pointed at teens

By Karen Thomas, USA TODAY
November 13, 2002

    A new treatment program hopes to tap into the Internet to curb teen drinking and drug use. But experts in the field of substance abuse are leery.

    With the backing of former White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, a California health care company announced Wednesday the launch of teen Getgoing (teengetgoing.com), a Web-based treatment program that the company hopes to sell to schools and court systems.

    Though the Net offers a wealth of support and community groups for adults and teens struggling with substance abuse, teenGetgoing is the first carried out entirely on the Web from diagnosis and treatment to maintaining a drug- and alcohol-free life.

    McCaffrey, who under the Clinton administration lobbied to make treatment more available and less costly, says relapse is the biggest problem facing young substance abusers. Internet technology, he says, offers a "delivery vehicle for science-based treatment" to those who otherwise would get no help and lifelong support to stay off drugs and booze.

    McCaffrey is an unpaid board member for the program.

    Online sessions use video technology in which eight to 10 anonymous group members can see and hear a trained counselor and can hear but not see one another. Advantages of the Internet are cost and privacy, says Barry Karlin, CEO of CRC Health Corporation, creator of the Web program. A 12-week, 24-session treatment costs $1,200 and isn't covered by insurance. Outpatient counseling can cost up to $3,000, and hospital or camp-based treatment can run up to $20,000.

    Karlin says the program has had "remarkable" success with 80 adults in the past year and a pilot group of 20 teens in a special school for troubled kids in Oregon.

    The teen program is similar to the adult program, called eGetgoing, but includes an educational step. Six sessions provide information on alcoholism and drug abuse, and quizzes give professionals the insight to deal with a youngster.

    It's an "interesting concept in terms of making more treatment more accessible to more people," says Anne Bradley of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. But there is no proof, she says, that Internet programs are effective in treating substance abuse. Researchers are just beginning to see results in using computers to diagnose substance abuse in teens, and it has taken many years of groundbreaking research to find out what does work in treating substance abuse in adults.

    "As we apply a new medium, we need to be sure it's in line with the research," Bradley says.

    Less is known about treating teen substance abusers, says pediatrician John Knight, director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Children's Hospital in Boston. With severe addictions, treatment isn't effective "without pulling them from their environment and putting them into a residence program. I don't know how you would do that online. It's hard enough in person."