The raging opioid epidemic, a tragedy of immense proportions, is at the center of national debate. But America’s growing alcohol problem doesn’t get the same air time, even though it is more pervasive, ineffectively addressed — and just as tragic.
The facts are disturbing: One in four adults binge drink; 16 million people have an alcohol use disorder, as defined by the National Institutes of Health; and 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults is due to excessive drinking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In August, a study in JAMA Psychiatry summed it up this way: “Substantial increases in [heavy drinking] constitute a public health crisis.”
This crisis is of particular concern to the business community. Three out of four binge drinkers are employed and the impact on workplace productivity totals $82 billion every year. While the government has a role to play in addressing this epidemic, simply expanding access to traditional forms of care is not the answer. There are almost 15,000 rehab facilities in the United States and most use a formulaic approach that has changed little over the last 70 years. In fact, Google recently took the extraordinary step of halting all advertising for “alcohol treatment centers” because of rampant “misleading” practices by rehab facilities.
While we all know and celebrate people who have succeeded using the traditional rehab approach, it’s critical to remember that those individuals represent a small minority. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people in need of treatment — 90 percent — go without it. That seems shocking, until you consider the reasons many people don’t go to rehab: the stigma and legitimate concerns about effectiveness, coupled with barriers due to high costs and travel.
Recognizing the enormous financial impact and the insufficiency of traditional care approaches only matters if there are viable alternatives that are in the best interest of individuals and the businesses that pay for their health care. Fortunately, advances over the last several decades offer hope with a modern, evidence-based approach.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is effective and well-validated by experts. A number of inexpensive medications can help people who struggle with heavy drinking reach their objectives — whether that is to quit or cut back. Yes, you read that right. Contrary to what pop culture says, not all heavy drinkers need to completely quit drinking. Many can choose to safely cut back. Simply offering the choice to quit or cut back can help heavy drinkers adhere better to a clinically meaningful recovery plan.
And then there is the revolution in communications. With the widespread use of mobile phones, most people struggling with heavy drinking are not limited to seeking help at a rehab clinic. Replacing the clinic with one’s own phone increases privacy, convenience and access while reducing the cost of bringing high-quality care to everyone who needs it, no matter where they happen to live.
Delivering evidence-based care to people at the time and place of their need creates the opportunity to change the lives of not just a few individuals, but for millions of people. That’s not theoretical; it is grounded in my personal and professional experience.
After struggling through school and my early career — I was fired so many times that I wrote a survival guide for the unemployed — I received a life-altering diagnosis of ADHD at age 37. By that time, I had spent thousands of dollars and endless hours in traditional talk therapy — which did nothing to address the underlying biology of my disorder, or teach me how to cope with it. By contrast, the combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication dramatically changed my life.
So powerful was that experience that I started a digital health company called AbleTo, which offers tele-therapy programs to alleviate the depression that all too often accompanies serious medical issues, such as heart disease and diabetes. Not only do AbleTo graduates tend to feel happier, they learn new behaviors that can substantially enhance their medical recovery.
That experience gives me the confidence to state that a similar approach can be applied to the heavy drinking epidemic. Individuals everywhere can be successfully engaged and treated, resulting in happy and healthier lives. What’s more, employers can afford to pay for such solutions because the cost is comfortably offset by substantial, first-year productivity gains.
That’s why I started Annum Health. At Annum, we combine cognitive behavioral therapy, education, medication and support to empower individuals to better manage their relationship with alcohol. We strive to remove labels, ensure privacy, cut costs, and deliver results for people who struggle with heavy drinking and want an alternative to traditional treatment.
I’m calling on business leaders to take a proactive approach: Make quality, accessible treatment for heavy drinking available to every employee today. No area of health care is more poised for drastic change that you have the power to implement.
When you treat heavy drinking as a workforce development issue—and deliver better solutions in your own workplace—your employees will lead happier, healthier and more productive lives. And when that happens, everyone wins.
Michael B. Laskoff is the CEO and co-founder of Annum Health, a modern alternative to rehab available through employer-sponsored health insurance plans.
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