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Talking About Addiction: Addressing Unethical Marketing in the Rehabilitation Industry


If you haven’t heard, the addiction industry is booming, and to-date commands a total market value of more than $35 billion.

As the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has expanded insurance coverage for addiction treatment services, millions of Americans have been given new access to rehabilitation and treatment.

However, this positive change has also brought a rapid influx of new consumers entering a growing market, and the potential for abuse from bad actors is a constant threat. From monied investors looking to enter the market and maximize their investment to new players with a habit of cutting corners, those at the most difficult periods of their lives are wading into a sea that is unregulated, unprotected, and unforgiving.

In a marketplace inundated by fraud (more on that later), even Google was recently forced to restrict sponsored advertising in an effort to curb the boom’s more nefarious side-effects.

As a result, for those in the current rehabilitation industry or looking to enter it, it’s important to understand that the power to offer hope and a better life to those at their most desperate comes with a higher degree of ethical standards.

How This All Began

The current opioid crisis in America is serious business. There are more than 23.5 million Americans who struggle with addiction, contributing to nearly 100 deaths per day. And not only is death by a drug overdose the leading cause of death in adults under 50 but annually, drug overdoses kill more people than guns or car accidents.

In fact, 1 out of 50 deaths in the U.S. is drug-related.

As it stands, only 11% of addicts in need of treatment will ever make it to a rehabilitation center, but this has remained a favorable statistic for the outcrop of addiction centers looking to capitalize on a groundswell of recently insured addicts; some stemming from a sincere desire to provide help, and others, from a desire to make money.

Patients in Search of Treatment

As opposed to other forms of illness (a broken leg, a bad back, etc.) where a doctor would ordinarily refer a patient after examination to a qualified specialist, for those seeking treatment from addiction, they’re often on their own and at their most vulnerable.

This typically amounts to friends and family searching for help online, predominantly through search engines like Google.

As Google ranks its search engine results pages not only organically, but by topping off its list with paid ads, often not-for-profit treatment centers can be out-bidded by wealthier upstarts in getting to the prospective patient first.

And in matters as sensitive as a treatment for addiction, it’s best to choose a provider with a clean record and a patient’s best interest at heart.

What to Avoid: Unethical Marketing for Addiction Treatment

Patients coming to your center are at some of the lowest points of their lives, so it’s important to communicate honestly in all capacities to not abuse that initial trust.

Among the standard ethical issues that lead within the addiction space are…

Selling or Buying Referrals as Leads

In one of the most dominant cases of unethical addiction marketing, marketing firms will often pose as treatment centers themselves, answering calls, confirming insurance coverage, qualifying the lead, and then selling them off to the highest bidder. In some cases, a single lead may sell for more than $10,000, with the understanding that the lifetime of the patient’s treatment will guarantee a larger payout in the long run.

Misrepresenting Your Location

One common tactic of bad actors in this marketplace is one involving lead acquisition. For instance, most treatment facilities are in warm climates (California, Florida, and Arizona); however, there are those seeking local treatment from states outside these regions. While it’s not unethical for a patient to find you independently based on your name or history, to advertise as a local option using keywords like “Nashville Addiction Treatment” for a facility based in Tampa, Florida, would be morally dishonest.

Being Dishonest on What You Can and Cannot Do

One of the core concepts of addiction treatment is the fact that the patient, not the treatment facility, has to do the work. Therefore, in your website copy, digital advertising, etc., the best approach is an honest one. Be forthcoming in what your facility works to do, its techniques and methods, and any expectations your prospective patients may have on the efficacy of their treatment.

Playing with Statistics

This is misrepresenting information plain and simple. Whether it’s your relapse or recovery statistics, it’s unscrupulous to exaggerate—or worse, lie—about these critical demonstrations of treatment effectiveness. Be honest, upfront, and prepared to back up your claims with real data in order to approach prospective clients ethically and inspire them to book themselves—or their loved ones—into treatment.

Not Asking for Patient Permission on Marketing Materials

Due to HIPAA regulations and practices, the identity and privacy of your patients are sensitive to the highest degree. Therefore, the protection of this personal information is critical to being ethical in the operation of your treatment facility. Although it’s tempting to use the likeness of your previously successful patients, this should never be done without their express written permission. Often many treatment centers will take a shot of real patients (in group therapy, for example) to showcase a specific service without ever gaining permission from the patients themselves. Happily recovered or not, their privacy is not only legally protected, but should be morally as well.

Final Thoughts

Although the industry is currently undergoing internal change, for now, the changes being made are slight. However, in similarity to Google’s intervention to stop locksmith fraud, or limiting ads for payday lenders, if the industry continues to show an inability to regulate itself in the face of rampant fraud, external parties will soon step in.

As a treatment center in a newly bustling marketplace, standing out among your competition can be challenging—especially when the primary goal is to first offer help. With the help of Scorpion, you’ll not only gain the ability to inspire relief and security through a website that extols authority but be seen by your prospective patients as a result of an online presence that emphasizes locality in digital search.

And most importantly, to do so ethically.

For a better chance to give those in need, your support and assistance, Give Us a Call Today.