Should All Doctors Check Out AA?

By Hunter R. Slaton 05/02/13

An NYU researcher urges physicians to attend 12-step meetings for "education." Some recovering addicts tell The Fix they agree.

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Sure. Just go to a meeting first. Photo via

If you’ve ever gone to a doctor who didn’t seem to have a clue about addiction, recovery or 12-step programs, you’re not alone, according to Marc Galanter, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at NYU Langone Medical Center. He says many physicians don’t have enough understanding of how 12-step programs work, or the benefits they can provide. “Any doctor treating addicted people should go to at least a few AA meetings, so they can discuss it with patients in a knowledgeable way,” he argues. “It’s very experiential, and doctors should have a sense of it. They should also learn the steps of AA.” Many AA meetings are designated as "open," meaning anyone can attend. And other support groups could benefit doctors as well. Practical Recovery President Tom Horvath, PhD, tells The Fix that most meetings of SMART Recovery (which he helped found) are open to anyone, and no one is required to participate in the discussion—they can just sit and listen. "It would be ideal if someone who works in addiction treatment sampled one or several meetings of each type ... in their locality," says Horvath.

Many people in recovery agree with Galanter's claim that doctors can be ill-informed. “I was surpised when I realized that my GP really had no experience with and little information about addiction as I experienced it, and even less about recovery options,” Sean, from Brooklyn, tells us. “My first GP prescribed me antidepressants ‘because when people like you quit drinking you get depressed,’ and also prescribed Xanax, advising that, ‘When the urge comes, you just kick back with one of these.’” Wilmington, NC, resident Christopher says his doctor recommended AA over NA, because "he could never give up smoking pot." Christopher says he was "shocked by his response and definitely, from that point forward, didn’t trust him to take my disease or recovery seriously."

Yet despite such medical misapprehensions about sobriety in a 12-step program, not everyone agrees it would benefit docs to hit a few meetings. Fix contributor John Gordon says most of the doctors that he's met over the years have known "at least a little" about AA. But, “their medical opinions about the nature of alcoholism tend to run counter to what's written in the Big Book [of Alcoholics Anonymous], specifically the Doctor's Opinion. I think that is a good thing, seeing how the Doctor's Opinion is decades old and, scientifically speaking, utterly irrelevant.” Gordon also wonders whether attending 12-step meetings could actually create harmful biases. “Doctors are, hopefully, scientists,” he says. “They should be looking at efficacy statistics and so forth. I think, in terms of helping their patients, it's best to have a fully academic and dispassionate understanding of what AA is.”

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Hunter Slaton is the esports managing editor for Blizzard Entertainment. You can find hunter on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.