Online drug treatment programs can be just as effective as traditional in-person group counseling, at least in the short term, according to a new report by Johns Hopkins researchers.
The concept received high praise Friday morning from former U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who was at an announcement of the findings at Baltimore's Institute for Behavioral Resources, a partner in the study.
"People need effective, science-based treatment that is appropriate for their community," McCaffrey said. "This Internet delivery behind health care is going to be a big thing for us in the coming years."
Researchers divided 37 participants enrolled in a methadone program into two groups: a traditional counseling group and one that met via video conference online.
After six weeks, the attendance of the online participants was 90 percent, while that of the traditional group was 76 percent. "That's excellent in our treatment setting, and quite frankly in most treatment settings," said Dr. Van King, the study's lead author and an associate professor at Hopkins. In some groups, participants show up just half the time.
Online participants said they liked the treatment more than the group that met in person, suggesting that they may be more likely to stay on the path to recovery. The privacy of online counseling can help remove the stigma of drug treatment for many people struggling with substance abuse problems, researchers said. And its convenience is attractive to people who lead busy lives.
The researchers acknowledged that online treatment is just one tool in recovery and that the study had limitations. Investigators did not study whether the treatment was effective in keeping addicts clean in the long run, and online sessions are not practical for addicts who do not have Internet access.
For Baltimore's hard-core addicts, drug abuse is often complicated by mental health problems or HIV/AIDS. For them, face-to-face counseling might be more effective than virtual treatment, said Greg Warren, executive director of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems.
For low-income addicts, the price of treatment is a constant barrier, Warren pointed out. The online sessions cost $50 each, and participants take part for 24 sessions. That comes to $1,200 for twice-weekly sessions over three months, only slightly less than in-person treatment, Warren said.
For now, two private insurers - Aetna and Cigna - cover some of the costs, said Dr. Barry Karlin, who invented the online program, known as eGetgoing, five years ago.
Warren said he welcomes any effort to tackle the city's enormous treatment needs. Baltimore is home to 74,000 people who need treatment, according to estimates from the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration. But the city's various programs reach 10 percent of them, Warren said.