Caron CEO-Elect, Brad Sorte, shares his findings on the impact of AI on substance abuse recovery
The statistics are overwhelming; According to the American Addiction Centers, over 22 million Americans are said to be struggling with substance abuse / addiction and only 10% of them are treated in any way.
As in so many other industries, it’s not difficult to claim that AI is revolutionizing the drug abuse treatment sector, offering new ways to identify crises, find like-minded people, identify early through genetic testing, and ultimately achieve full recovery.
While fully automated, AI-driven drug abuse treatment may be a long way off, AI and machine learning technologies designed to help patients and their families return to health are becoming more accessible and effective every day.
Caron has been at the forefront of fighting this public epidemic for 60 years and has just entered a new phase with the appointment of Brad Sorte as CEO-elect. In this interview, Brad shares his insight into how artificial intelligence will work [and is already impacting] Drug abuse treatment, as well as experiences from someone who has seen and helped countless people deal with and recover from their addiction.
You have just achieved what many would consider a desirable milestone in your career. How does it feel to be the CEO of Caron?
Sort by: Well, there is a great responsibility to hand over the baton to advance that vision. In fact, it’s kind of sacred. It really feels special, not just because it’s a milestone, but because of the journey that brought me here.
You know, I remember vividly 2015 when I was the new Executive Director of Caron Florida. I made my first trip to Caron Pennsylvania since my parents dropped me off there as a patient almost 10 years ago. I’ve seen a lot of people – friends included – come and go at Caron’s.
As I approached Caron’s PA campus and its iconic fences, it struck me how diverse the circumstances of these trips were – and how real the gift and promise of life in recovery are.
It’s a journey I would take almost every day as Caron’s new CEO. That fills me with gratitude and a great sense of responsibility.
Why do you think Caron has done so many positive things over the years? What role did data, technology and AI play in this success?
Caron’s patient-centered approach to treatment, prevention, and research is why we can have a positive impact on individuals, families, and the treatment community at large. By continuously reviewing our performance at all levels and evaluating our results, customer feedback, and the latest science and research, we can quickly adapt and apply innovations and improvements to our patient care.
We also examine the opportunities where we believe our customers and stakeholders are not being served and that is where we focus our time and energy. Caron’s program innovations – whether it offered one of the first gender-segregated program models more than 20 years ago, or more recently developed programs for specific groups such as young adults, older adults and the medically impaired, or recently moved into our value-based insurance contract model – continue to set standards for our industry .
Technology plays a vital role in the science of addiction medicine. At Caron Treatment Centers specifically, we are now using a person’s DNA to determine the best medication for their underlying psychological diagnosis so that we can start that medication earlier, which increases the likelihood of sustained recovery. We can also use artificial intelligence to predict and intervene when a person is in the early stages of relapse or recurrence.
Through AI, we are able to create predictive indexes that can identify when a person is at risk of relapse due to changes in their geolocation, contacts they interact with on their phone, and consistent follow-up recommendations.
All of this information is combined to create a rich data set that enables us to respond specifically to minimize relapse, while also allowing us to redirect people for treatment immediately after a full relapse. This early warning system is especially important in opioid use disorders as the risk of death increases significantly for those who relapse after treatment.
How do you see the use of AI in drug abuse treatment? How would you like to use it in the future?
We’re just scratching the surface of AI in treating substance use disorders. I see several areas where artificial intelligence can expand its influence and improve long-term results. AI is essential to building predictive engines and analyzing a wide variety of data points. This can be used to identify people at high risk of relapse. In addition, the idea of creating “centaurs” with human and artificial intelligence that combine the best of human intuition and AI analysis will allow us greater accuracy in identifying the best treatment protocols by analyzing a patient’s clinical problems . We have seen this in oncology and these results are a great example of the whole being stronger than the sum of its parts.
How can other companies in your industry and beyond take a page out of your book when it comes to an innovative approach? What advice would you give aspiring executives looking to build a company with a legacy like Caron?
It’s easy to get distracted by the latest trends in treatment. Chasing the latest shiny objects causes companies to exhaust their resources, as does trying to be everything to all people rather than really refining what their strengths lie in. Focus on your customers’ needs, what they are looking for and how they are not being met. I would recommend a relentless commitment to quality and customer service to newcomers. People come to us on the worst day of their lives confused by the choices they have to make. It is up to us to make this as painless as possible and at the same time to take care of you in the best possible way.
I think every company has a vision, a reason to exist. However, it seems that companies and organizations are often obsessed with being a business, making money, rather than meeting a need or achieving their vision.
Perhaps as a nonprofit, Caron influenced our commitment to our vision, but what I’ve found with our patient-centric approach is that when you invest in a system that prioritizes recovery of a patient from this chronic, treatable disease, when you have full-time doctors, Caron has brain disease for addiction medicine, hiring doctors and psychologists at master’s level, consultants certified in substance and process disorders (sex, gambling, shopping, digital use, games) – and medically appropriate evidence-based treatment … patients get well, insurers want to work with you and people stand up for your cause.
This applies to us at Caron and there is no reason why this cannot apply to anyone. When you understand your customers’ needs, align your vision and resources, and do the right thing, you will succeed.
It’s about focusing on the vision and the big picture and not pushing the balance sheet to the detriment of the result. I would also advise prospective managers to remain humble, listen, stay open-minded and retain their curiosity.
Knowing why we are doing what we are doing is just as important as doing it.
What do you think of the future of technology, artificial intelligence, and the future of substance abuse treatment?
There are still many opportunities for technology to improve the health system, especially in the treatment of addictions. One of the best places we see this will be the continued growth of measurable results that can help educate doctors on how to improve their care, research efforts to advance the science of addiction medicine, and improved access.
The future of substance use disorder treatment will continue to see integration into the full behavioral health continuum as the silos between psychiatric treatment and substance use disorder treatment continue to collapse. Eventually, these sectors will also become a more integrated part of the overall health care system. The pandemic has highlighted the need for greater coordination of mental, behavioral and physical health care, which we at Caron support through our medical education initiatives. This will be beneficial for the patients as these issues are treated through a whole person’s perspective and the interdependencies of their issues are addressed collectively.
After all, what inspired you and what keeps you going after more than ten years in the field?
The promise of recovery and its realization! Can you think of a more inspiring phenomenon?
People come to Caron on some of the worst and darkest days of their lives. Seeing them start making connections, reconnecting with family and loved ones inspires me to move on. I am also driven by the fact that untreated substance use disorder can be fatal. Our work saves lives.
Caron’s reach extends beyond treatment to include prevention, education, and medical research. We’re trying to educate people about the effectiveness of treatment and its ability to improve the lives of 1 in 3 American families affected by the disease. We want to help redefine the way we talk and think about substance use disorders and their treatment, we want to share the promise of recovery. I’ve seen it firsthand many times and as CEO I want to continue to give hope to not only individuals and families, but results as well.
75% of patients with substance use disorder recover and achieve remission. After a year, recovery is more likely than relapse, and after 5 years, a person in recovery is just as likely to start substance abuse as a person who has never had a substance disorder.
People in America need to start taking their mental health seriously and that inspires me and us at Caron to keep fighting and working.