It may sound too good to be true – a pill that, combined with education and support, can provide almost immediate relief for people struggling with alcohol dependency.
But Samantha Scheer, founder and director of the Drink-Less outpatient clinic at 678 Park Ave. in Cranston, said the results in just the two months since she launched the venture have been “amazing.”
“The outcomes are unbelievable. I’ve done a ton of research … It’s one thing to read it, another to see it,” she said, adding: “It’s unbelievable how many people need help that now find something that works.”
Scheer touts Drink-Less as the first clinic of its kind in Rhode Island, and perhaps the nation. At the center of its services is a medication called baclofen, a muscle relaxant long used in treating muscular spasticity associated with conditions such as multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injuries.
According to Scheer, some clinical studies have found that baclofen has other “remarkable” side effects – namely “suppression of alcohol cravings and anxiety.”
Through the off-label prescription of baclofen – a term connoting its use beyond its originally intended medical purpose – and a personalized approach, Scheer said Drink-Less is able to help a wide spectrum of people moderate or eliminate their alcohol use.
“The objective,” a description of the program reads, “is to completely switch off cravings and anxiety so that the patient experiences an effortless indifference to alcohol.”
Perhaps the most essential aspect of the program, according to Scheer, is the fact that it does not ask participants to immediately cease drinking. Instead, she said, the intent is to help people reduce their consumption over time – each through a “pretty rigid” baclofen regimen established following an initial consultation and revised over the course of subsequent weekly visits.
“Unlike traditional treatment options, you don’t need to stop drinking or go through detox to start the program,” the description of Drink-Less reads. “Most patients experience a gradual, progressive reduction in cravings for alcohol as the medication dose is increased, while others experience a slightly lesser effect until their effective dose is reached and their cravings suddenly ‘switch off.’ Once the cravings and anxiety are well controlled, the patient is able to choose whether to drink in moderation or abstain entirely and regain control of their life without suffering.”
The “huge bell curve” that exists in terms of baclofen dosages that can be utilized, Scheer said, provides “a lot flexibility in how it can be used to help people.”
“After that [initial consultation], it’s customized to the patient,” she said. “So, we might have somebody that’s a binge drinker on the weekends only, somebody who drinks all day long, or somebody who craves only at night. So person A that comes in isn’t going to be treated the same way as person B. And that’s a real part of what we do in measuring the success of how they’re doing in the program, is customizing how they take [baclofen], when they take it, how much they take it to make it work for them.”
Scheer also touted baclofen’s application as an anti-anxiety medication, saying: “Anxiety is a major underlying driver of excessive drinking. I mean, it’s pretty much the core driver … This is two-for-one punch with this medication, and there’s no other med on the market that does it.”
Scheer said as of late February, Drink-Less had nearly 20 patients. Their experiences, she said, are wide ranging – from people who are concerned over the amount of wine they have at night to others who have been consuming multiple pints of alcohol a day for many years.
“I’ve had people come in, they’ve said, ‘I’m so skeptical, I don’t know if this is going to work,’” she said. “And then in a matter of a week or two … These are huge changes for people.”
She added: “[Alcohol abuse is] a huge epidemic. That’s one the main reasons why we did this.”
An online search of baclofen and its use in alcohol treatment yields scattered results. Its use for such purposes is much more common in Europe than in the United States.
Scheer said she understands that many people will be skeptical. So does her father, Scot Scheer, one of the founders of the Assisted Recovery opioid addiction program that has operated at the same 678 Park Ave. location since 2006. But he shares his daughter’s belief in the baclofen-based approach of Drink-Less – and also marvels at the improvements that clients of the clinic have experienced in just two months.
“We’re fighting an uphill battle to get people to understand … There is a better way,” he said, adding that the program has the “criteria and the methodology in place” to use baclofen effectively as a treatment.
Drink-Less operates on a private-pay basis, keeping insurance out of the equation in a way that Scheer said appeals to clients who wish to maintain their privacy.
“The patients appreciate it. They want that … They want to come in, they want to get the help, and they want to live their lives.”
She also said baclofen is extremely affordable and that Drink-Less offers flexible scheduling and appointments.
Scheer, 29, has high hopes for Drink-Less. She studied at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst before earning an MBA at Bryant University, and has previously worked for CVS and Lifespan. She has also started multiple consulting businesses during her career.
She said her discovery of baclofen’s potential to treat alcohol dependence drew her to what she saw as a chance to make a real difference in people’s lives – and find a new kind of fulfillment through her work.
Operating alongside, but separate from, Assisted Recovery has also allowed her to more efficiently get the operation off the ground while building on the work her family has been involved with for a number of years.
“There was always a point where I just couldn’t do enough [in previous roles], and it was just kind of eating at me … I wanted to do something to really be able to help people,” she said. “To have a space that we could leverage and share to do a creative program that nobody else is doing, I had to go after it.”
How far does Scheer believe Drink-Less can go?
“The goal is to get it national. That’s our plan,” she said. “We’re starting it here and trying to help as many people as we can.”
To learn more, visit drink-less.org or call 346-1599 or 855-Y-SUFFER.