Can Encouraging Substance Abuse Patients to Participate in Self-Help Groups Reduce Demand for Health Care? A Quasi-Experimental Study
Background: Twelve-step-oriented inpatient treatment programs emphasize 12-step treatment approaches and the importance of ongoing attendance at 12-step self-help groups more than do cognitive-behavioral (CB) inpatient treatment programs. This study evaluated whether this difference in therapeutic approach leads patients who are treated in 12-step programs to rely less on professionally provided services and more on self-help groups after discharge, thereby reducing long-term health care costs. Methods: A prospective, quasi-experimental comparison of 12-step-based (N = 5) and cognitive-behavioral (n= 5) inpatient treatment programs was conducted. These treatments were compared on the degree to which their patients participated in self-help groups, used outpatient and inpatient mental health services, and experienced positive outcomes (e.g., abstinence) in the year following discharge. Using a larger sample from an ongoing research project, 887 male substance-dependent patients from each type of treatment program were matched on pre-intake health care costs (N = 1774). At baseline and 1-year follow-up, patients’ involvement in self-help groups (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous), utilization and costs of mental health services, and clinical outcomes were assessed. Results: Compared with patients treated in CB programs, patients treated in 12-step programs had significantly greater involvement in self-help groups at follow-up. In contrast, patients treated in CB programs averaged almost twice as many outpatient continuing care visits after discharge (22.5 visits) as patients treated in 12-step treatment programs (13.1 visits), and also received significantly more days of inpatient care (17.0 days in CB versus 10.5 in 12-step), resulting in 64% higher annual costs in CB programs ($4729/patient, p < 0.001). Psychiatric and substance abuse outcomes were comparable across treatments, except that 12-step patients had higher rates of abstinence at follow-up (45.7% versus 36.2% for patients from CB programs, p < 0.001). Conclusions: Professional treatment programs that emphasize self-help approaches increase their patients’ reliance on cost-free self-help groups and thereby lower subsequent health care costs. Such programs therefore represent a cost-effective approach to promoting recovery from substance abuse.