Progress through innovation

By David Whitesock, Face It TOGETHER Chief Innovation Officer

A courtroom and jail in south central South Dakota is where the greatest change of my life would occur...

As a kid I dreamed of being a professional baseball player or a fighter pilot. Later, I wanted to be an architect. I never wanted to have the disease of addiction. Given everything I know now about the disease, it’s clear that I struggled with symptoms of addiction — anxiety, isolation, depression, lack of self-esteem and self-confidence — as early as 10 years old. As a young adult and through a career as a professional radio broadcaster, alcohol addiction chronically progressed over 12 years. In and out of treatment and even more the criminal justice system, eventually I nearly lost everything, including my own life.

Sitting in that jail cell in south central South Dakota, it dawned on me that something had to change. Everybody has their moment of truth and that was mine. A counselor gave me a name and a phone number for a sober home in Sioux Falls, SD. That would be my home for the first six months out of jail and where I would meet one of the people who would alter the course of my life. With little option for employment, I gambled on education — going all in at The University of South Dakota. Thanks to determined and inspiring mentors and professors, I’d complete my undergraduate work, then get into law school and earn a master’s degree and juris doctor.

Every state has a certain standard individuals must meet before being licensed to practice law—in South Dakota the requirement is “good moral character.” I had to prove to the state bar that after eight years of sobriety and three college degrees I met the requisite standard. This was no easy feat and getting a job in the legal profession proved difficult. At this point, having expended all my contacts, I decided to reach out to two men who had a significant impact in my life — Kevin Kirby and Charlie Day — the co-founders of Face It TOGETHER. This connection was life-changing. I first met Kevin when I moved into the sober home. And Charlie I met during the series of town hall meetings that created Face It TOGETHER in 2009. By 2012, Face It TOGETHER was ready to expand the team and grow the mission. Kevin and Charlie brought me on board and I’ve been working at Face It TOGETHER since.

A year later I returned to that courtroom in Winner, SD and swore the Oath of Attorney administered by the judge who sentenced me eight years earlier. Today, I apply my legal training to my work, where I sit seven feet from Kevin. His sober home and vision helped save my life.

Now as we find ourselves in the firm grip of an addiction epidemic and overdose is the number one cause of injury-related death for Americans, it’s pretty clear that it’s time, universally, for a different approach to managing this disease. We have treatment, medication, counseling, incarceration. Yet, why isn’t technology more utilized in this fight? Its value is immeasurable in supporting countless other chronic illnesses...why not addiction?

As I’ve learned in my role as Face It TOGETHER’S chief data officer, technology can be a beautiful thing, particularly when it comes to managing addiction successfully. In an effort to bridge care gaps and extend support for those suffering from the disease, we rely on technology and data to help mitigate the shortcomings of today’s treatment approaches.

Recognizing a need to reach and engage sufferers in a different way, we enlisted digital health innovators from San Francisco, Welkin Health, to help us bring our vision to life. Together we created a platform that offers our clients remote engagement and continuous support managing their disease. Patients and their loved ones receive support from our coaches wherever they are, when they need it most, through multiple means of communication — text, email, phone, face-to-face meetings — whatever it takes. With more ways to engage with our recovery coaches over a longer period of time, our clients better manage their disease and improve their overall wellness.

Today’s tragic headlines show that the older, short-term models of addiction treatment aren’t cutting it. Yet through preliminary but reliable data, we’re discovering what is working — peer support that engages clients regularly and over the long term has a positive effect. Our goal is to shift from substance-focused measures to those that evaluate overall health and wellness, not just symptoms. Current data captured in real-time helps us to determine and provide the best course of care and management for addiction. As a result, we’re building programs around these success metrics to better manage the disease. The technology is available, so let’s use it to save lives and keep people well.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to addiction. Where we are seeing potential to significantly impact this epidemic is through the application of advanced technology enabling better support of patients and their loved ones. Combining these efforts with community outreach and education, working closely with healthcare providers and patients’ loved ones, provides a wide umbrella of support. As a survivor of the disease and as someone who works day in and day out to progress the way we manage it, I strongly believe that technology and data hold many answers and solutions to addiction, as it does for understanding any chronic disease. As more organizations begin to build infrastructures that permit anonymous sharing of data, like we do at Face It TOGETHER, critical new insight will be gleaned about the effectiveness of treatments and models of care, enabling innovation that can be replicated faster and with greater impact. 

Much like technology, this disease of addiction is constantly evolving. So should the way we face it — together.

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