In September 2020, the world’s first telehealth clinic for problem gamblers was launched by Kindbridge, a network of licensed therapists specializing in gambling disorders.
In partnership with the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University, Kindbridge is developing an evidence-based model of teletherapy for problem gamblers and gamers.
It’s no accident that the service debuted during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Kindbridge website, Covid “fueled a surge in gaming by providing an accessible social environment in place of physical connection,” and caused a related increase in problematic gaming. Kindbridge points to estimates that 3 percent of 3.24 billion active gamers worldwide are at risk of gaming disorders, which in turn are linked to “a range of potentially devastating mental and physical health problems.”
“Effectively, we’re growing into a dedicated center of excellence for gambling and gaming treatment,” Kindbridge CEO Daniel Umfleet told GGB News. “We’re building a national network of clinicians that allows anyone who has a gaming or gambling problem to gain access to qualified, trained and managed clinicians who specialize in treating the problems unique to these populations.”
The company works with several major U.S. insurance providers including Aetna, United Healthcare, Amerihealth, Medicare and Medicaid “to ensure people seeking help have more access opportunities,” he said, no matter where they’re located.
The Kindbridge Research Institute is funded by grants from Playtech, a supplier of online gaming and sports betting software, and anonymous donors who are not casino-related. New Jersey-based Rutgers is the research partner.
In Umfleet’s view, a telehealth clinic with a problem-gambling focus is long overdue. He called the clinic “a central entryway for anybody from anywhere across the country to connect with us, schedule a session with a specialist clinician in their state, leverage their health insurance to control cost and do their treatment program from the comfort of their own home in a more private manner.”
Gambling addiction is often accompanied by co-occurring addictions and comorbidities—meaning therapy must address a variety of mental health issues that contribute to the gambling issue. According to the National Center for Responsible Gaming, people who struggle with gambling disorders tend to have other psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and substance-use disorder.
“In other words, we don’t just talk to you about your relationship with gambling,” said Umfleet. “We look at the mental health status of the whole person and work on any of the conditions that need to be addressed in order to help the person obtain a healthy outcome.”
And of course, financial repercussions make the problem worse. Umfleet said he’s encountered “a lot of people who have gone to the bank and cashed in everything they’ve got, put it down on red and it came up black. They placed the bet because they had dug themselves into a hole financially, and kept chasing their losses over and over until, inevitably, there was nothing left.” Unfortunately, he added, “their natural inclination is to find any available resources so they can go back to the casino, to try to win it all back. Again and again and again. From a clinical perspective the subject deserves a lot more than it’s given. From a statistic data standpoint, we can start to provide some of the answers that people have been trying to get to for so long.”
Lia Nower, director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers, is lead researcher for the study. She said when help is close at hand—literally at people’s fingertips, on a phone—they may be more likely to seek help.
“But it’s a very new technology, which people began to discover during Covid quarantines,” she said. “Whether telehealth will continue to gain popularity is yet to be seen. However, it’s particularly popular among younger clients and those who have trouble accessing traditional services.”
It also may be a preferred options for those who want “more anonymity than sitting in an office provides.”
Telehealth has two things going for it, according to Nower: privacy and convenience.
“And of the two, privacy is number one,” she said. “No matter where the person is, if they don’t have transportation or don’t want to be seen in a therapy setting, being able to access help from a phone anytime and anywhere is really appealing. That’s particularly true if you’re place-bound.”
Are there drawbacks to this kind of therapy, since patients don’t meet with their therapists in person? Does it seem less real? Nower said no.
“Telehealth is also face-to-face—just like seeing a therapist in person. Some people will still prefer the in-person experience, but those who are more comfortable with online modalities, who attend meetings or classes on Zoom, for example, are more likely to seek out telehealth services.”
And there’s no difference in the commitment of time, she said.
Asked if any age groups tend to gamble more, Nower said, “It would depend. If you talk about online casinos, the 45-to-54-year-old age group gambles the most. Sports wagering tends to skew younger. Bingo skews a little older. It depends on the activity and how it’s delivered. Online gambling tends to appeal more to those who are a little younger, but that’s changing.”
The ultimate goal, Umfleet said, is “to create a program that gets better and better over time, so we get a really effective telehealth program. We’re trying to answer: ‘How do you start? What do you need to build so that care for this population is as good as it gets for this population?’
“Value-based healthcare follows the general theory of—at the end of the day—fixing the person right the first time,” he said. “How do we know when we’ve done that? In this instance, there’s been so little research done around it. We don’t have a sufficient base. From this point forward, we are building a framework to understand statistically every element of how care is expressed and delivered, through the process to recovery.”
He expects to see early data in as little as six months, but it will be 18 to 24 months before substantial data is available. “That’s not a quick task, where you have the ability to produce some peer-reviewed study on a sample of a couple of hundred people. It will take some time.
“We’re at the very beginning of this journey, at a time when sportsbooks, online gambling, crypto trading, DFS, competitive esports and video gaming among youth are exploding across the U.S. There has never been a better time to reach such a wide audience, with a large portion of players who fall into an at-risk category. Every casino company in the U.S. should be thinking about the mental health of their players and employees right now.”