A New Approach to Addiction

Maria went to 12-step meetings regularly for more than a decade. But she never admitted that she was still drinking.

“That approach doesn’t work for everyone,” says Tobin Shelton, the Clinical Manager for Venice Family Clinic’s Substance Use, Motivation and Medication Integrated Treatment (SUMMIT) program. “Our underlying approach is harm reduction. People can go at their own pace.”

After coming to SUMMIT’s women’s group and Spanish-language group, Maria changed her behavior. She has stopped drinking, became a group facilitator, and is 18 months sober.

“It’s the power of not aiming for sobriety that allows a space for it,” Shelton says. “Our program pulls back the veil to acknowledge that all sorts of people at all stages of life use drugs and alcohol. It’s a fact. Once that is accepted as a fact, we can help people stay safer.”

The program has also substantially shifted the way Venice Family Clinic treats people with addictions. Before SUMMIT launched in 2012, if patients were intoxicated, they would have to reschedule their appointment to receive health care. Now, when people with addictions come to see a doctor, a social worker on call determines the best level of care. The new approach was developed through a research partnership with the RAND Corporation which tested integrating substance use treatment in a primary care setting.

“It’s a huge reversal in our approach to addiction,” Shelton says. “Rather than something that prevents treatment of other health issues, we see opportunities for doctors to play a role in getting the patient feeling better and healing.”

SUMMIT’s multi-faceted approach can include addiction counseling, therapy, and case management. Group sessions integrate therapeutic techniques like art therapy and motivational interviewing. There are groups for women, Spanish speakers, homeless individuals, and people who have loved ones dealing with addiction, as well as two walk-in groups.

“They experience mutual support, mutual aid, and it complements the individual meetings people have with their providers and their addiction counselors and therapists,” Shelton says.

The program also focuses on transportation as well as neighborhood and community health by offering bus tokens, healthy food, and help with job placement. Program participants are given access to sterile syringes, which prevents the transmission of diseases like hepatitis C and HIV and can even be connected with emergency medical services like detox programs.

What started as a research project and a pilot program has shifted the paradigm for substance use treatment, changing the outlook and experience of Venice Family Clinic’s who struggle with addictions.  so everyone can receive quality health care.