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The 30-day Myth

Treating addiction effectively, rehab centers are finding, is truly a matter of time. The longer the stay, the better chance for success.

November 10, 2008|Shari Roan | Roan is a Times staff writer.
  (Ronald J. Cala II / For The…)

We love quick, tidy solutions in this country. With health problems, in particular, we're impatient. Pills to ease each and every symptom? Great. Same-day surgery? Terrific. A scheduled cesarean section? Bring it on.

But in the case of drug and alcohol dependence, it's becoming increasingly clear that there is no such thing as get-well-quick therapy. Instead, with scientific evidence showing that the longer the treatment, the better the chance of lasting sobriety, addiction centers nationwide are lengthening their programs and firmly discouraging patients from early checkouts.

For more than a year, the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage has offered a 90-day residential treatment program, in addition to shorter programs, that attracts about one-third of all clients. Promises Treatment Center in Malibu now provides more than half of its clients with 45- to 90-day treatments and last year extended its young-adults program from 30 days to 90 days.

Visions, which provides adolescents with addiction treatment in Malibu, increased its program's length from 30 days to 45. Hazelden, the legendary treatment program based in Minnesota, has added beds in nearly all of its facilities over the last two years to meet a growing demand for treatment programs of 90 days or more.

Addiction experts say that longer treatments -- with the length of stay based on the client's specific needs -- will lead to fewer people cycling between 30-day hospitalizations and relapses for years on end. From 40% to 60% of people relapse after drug treatment, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

"Treatment is dose-related," says Dr. Harry Haroutunian, director of the licensed professional program at the Betty Ford Center. "More is often better, depending on what you do with the time."

Treatment programs of 28 or 30 days are still common. But this template was never based on medical evidence, says Dr. David Lewis, Vision's medical director. Lewis, who in the 1970s helped establish the first addiction treatment program in the U.S. Air Force, says 30-day stays were scheduled for bureaucratic reasons -- men and women didn't need to be reassigned if they were away from duty for no more than 30 days. Other treatment centers followed suit, and insurers adopted the standard of 28 or 30 days of inpatient care.

Today, addiction experts recognize that it's foolish to treat every patient the same way.

"There was a belief that 30 days was the right number," says Dr. David Sack, chief executive of Promises and an addiction psychiatrist. "But there was absolutely no data to say 30 days was the right number. . . . The programs were cookie cutters. What we're seeing now is this much broader view for how to manage addiction. There isn't this naive optimism that people will reach 30 days and they'll be fine."


Relapse rates

In fact, data suggest 30 days aren't nearly enough.

* Research published in 1999 by Bennett Fletcher, a senior research psychologist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has shown that though 90 days isn't a magic number, anything less than that tends to increase the chances of relapse. One study, of 1,605 cocaine users, looked at weekly cocaine use in the year after treatment. It found that 35% of people who were in treatment for 90 days or fewer reported drug use the following year compared with 17% of people who were in treatment for 90 days or longer. The study was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

* Another study, part of an NIDA-funded project called Drug Abuse Treatment Outcome Studies, followed 549 patients who had several problems in addition to their drug use and who entered a long-term residential program. Those who dropped out of treatment before 90 days had relapse rates similar to those who stayed in treatment only a day or two. After 90 days, however, relapse rates dropped steadily the longer a person stayed in treatment.

* Studies of youth also reflect the connection between longer care and a greater chance of recovery. A 2001 UCLA study of 1,167 adolescents receiving substance-abuse treatment found that those in treatment for 90 days or more had significantly lower relapse rates than teens in programs of 21 days.

Some of the earliest evidence emerged from high success rates in treatment of addicted health professionals, says Haroutunian: The Federation of State Physician Health Programs has long recommended 90-day treatments and continued follow-up care for doctors who abuse drugs.

Longer treatment reflects the fact that addiction is a chronic, relapsing disorder, says Lisa Onken, chief of NIDA's behavioral and integrative treatment branch.

"The more you have a treatment that can help you become continuously abstinent, the better you do," she says. "You have to figure out how to be abstinent. You still have cravings. You still have friends offering you drugs. You still have to figure out ways not to use. The longer you are able to do that, the more you are developing skills to help you stay abstinent."

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