Every day in the United States, over 130 people die of an opioid overdose. Prescription drug abuse and addiction has become a severe national crisis with devastating consequences that not only affect public health, but social and economic welfare as well. Politicians and healthcare professionals are striving to spread awareness and have put various initiatives in place to tackle the crisis. The healthcare industry has implemented a number of recovery methods for substance abuse treatment and continues to search for innovative ways to tackle the nationwide epidemic.
While traditional in-person patient interaction is the primary way clinicians have approached substance abuse treatment, telehealth has been disrupting the mental health arena for some time and could offer new perspectives in addiction recovery. Telehealth involves the use of technologies such as mobile apps, video conferencing, texting, and other web-based tools to provide remote care so patients don’t have to travel to a provider’s physical location. However, according to a 2018 research project, telehealth is severely underutilized in addiction recovery.
The nature of addiction recovery calls for providers and patients to stay connected over extended periods of time. Telehealth can increase access to addiction treatment services by removing the barrier of geography. This is especially useful in rural settings as these areas report the highest averages of opioid abuse in the US and the lowest number of clinicians to treat the disease; even worse, 80 percent of all rural counties don’t even have a psychiatrist.
One reason for patient relapse is a lack of support, a need that can be filled quickly and conveniently with telehealth. Implementing the texting aspect of telehealth gives practitioners the ability to consistently remind patients of their goals toward sobriety, allowing for continuous support by providing a way for clinicians and patients to interact outside of regularly scheduled appointments. Texting also offers another way to remind patients of upcoming appointments and to reschedule if necessary. What’s more, telehealth platforms allow addiction specialists to treat multiple people at once in online group therapy sessions, without the specialist or patients needing to travel.
The platform also has value in educating providers—such as community health workers, primary care physicians, school nurses, etc.—that may be in need of assistance but who don’t have the time or money to attend classes.
Despite its multiple benefits, telehealth for addiction recovery is not without its drawbacks. The lack of face-to-face treatment with telehealth may create a barrier to recovery for some patients. Personal interaction with counselors and recovery groups full of people struggling with similar issues may make a big difference in breaking down the walls of denial for some.
Depending on where a patient lives, insurance coverage could be another concern with telehealth. Currently, only 38 states have passed laws requiring insurance companies to provide some form of reimbursement for telehealth services.
Overall, looking at a major public health issue with no clear-cut resolution, telehealth provides a promising, multifaceted solution that treatment facilities and providers nationwide should consider implementing into their programs. According to Candice Rasa, clinical director of the Florida-based Beach House Center for Recovery, “Addiction is a disease of isolation, after all. Its polar opposite is not sobriety but connection, which is the very thing that telehealth advances can exponentially multiply.”