A few years ago, The Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis to be a public health emergency (PHE). Amid addressing the challenges of that PHE, the COVID-19 pandemic came to the doorstep and presented another challenge, which has exacerbated issues for those struggling with substance abuse and the professionals who are trying to provide treatment. EHS Today reported, “Public health officials across the country are reporting spikes in drug overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 30 states reporting increases in opioid-involved overdose deaths.”

To complicate matters, individuals struggling with substance abuse and addiction are at higher risk for COVID-19 infection and complications, raising the importance of addressing both diseases.

In response to the pandemic, treatment programs have integrated telehealth technology for services they typically offer in person, including individual and group counseling, psychiatric services, support groups, and new patient admissions. 

Many treatment programs have faced the same challenges in the integration of telehealth that have been faced by other health care providers. There have been technology challenges, some patients lack access to technology or the skills to use it, and there can be complicated logistical problems to figure out.

Despite the start-up challenges, telehealth has resulted in some promising outcomes for treatment programs. 

For one, telehealth offers a solution for reaching patients who would otherwise experience a barrier to care. This is especially true for patients in rural areas. Previously, getting medication for the treatment of opioid addiction required an in-person appointment. However, “forty percent of counties in the U.S. do not have a single health care provider with a waiver permitting them to prescribe the opioid addiction treatment drug buprenorphine in an office setting,” according to an Office of Inspector General (OIG) report. Telehealth offers a solution for those patients.

There are also anecdotal examples of the benefits of telehealth for the treatment of substance abuse. 

  • An Office of Inspector General (OIG) report shared a quote from a treatment program official saying, “Our no-show rate is non-existent because of telehealth. We have bus and transportation issues when the weather is bad, but with telehealth, it is not an issue. The verbal feedback from patients is 100-percent satisfaction.”
  • The OIG report also shared, “One treatment program found that patients were more willing to participate in an hour-long conversation over the phone than they were to come to the facility for an hour-long meeting.”

The advances in telehealth use are essential not only for the treatment of substance abuse but also for the treatment of comorbidities that are often connected with addiction. Substance abuse puts individuals at greater risk of multiple health issues, including:

  • Mental illness
  • Chronic pain
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Tobacco use
  • Infectious disease (e.g., hepatitis C)
  • HIV

It is important to take the lessons from this period of time to continue to leverage telehealth to break down barriers to access and deliver high-quality substance abuse treatment in the future.