Using Telemedicine to Treat Opioid Addiction

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In the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis, another public health crisis has fallen out of our everyday thoughts and conversations. Each and every day, 128 people die in the United States by overdosing on opioids. About 10% of people who use opioids – whether by means of illegal drugs like heroin or legal painkillers like OxyContin – become addicted, and it’s estimated that over 2 million people struggle with opioid addiction. Over 40,000 die from opioid addiction each year.

With over 160,000 Americans dead from Covid-19 and life as we knew it six months ago a distant memory, it makes sense where much of our current focus resides. For those suffering from opioid addiction, their nightmare has only intensified.

For an opioid addict, life during Covid-19 has only become more difficult. Many of the resources opioid addicts rely on in their communities have dramatically altered their operations and continually update their schedules – whether they’re treatment centers, public health facilities, public transportation, or basic stores utilized for shelter and sanitation.

Lack of access to treatment for opioid addiction and overdoses has long been a barrier to a sustainable recovery, and conventional wisdom might’ve anticipated that the pandemic would only exacerbate that reality. For example, Forty percent of American counties have no providers that are licensed to administer highly successful treatments such as buprenorphine.

And while effective treatments are available and in circulation, distance hasn’t been the only deterrent for those seeking care. The difficulty in accessing appropriate and effective treatments has been a barrier for those seeking treatment and has prevented many from seeking it out in the first place, but shame also plays a big role in why people avoid seeking treatment for opioid addiction.

Even if resources are located nearby, some will avoid seeking medication or treatment for the stigma that comes along with addiction. No one wants to be an addict, and those in the throes of addiction are cognizant of the ways our society views addiction. With life grinding to a halt, opioid addicts and advocates feared for the worst with the pandemic providing for a perfect storm to roll back recent progress on awareness, treatment, and accessibility.

Instead, however, telemedicine’s revolutionary impact on how patients seek care has stretched it’s reach into opioid treatment. Treating opioid addiction with telemedicine might’ve seemed like an obvious remedy for the lack of access to medication and providers. The science has long made clear that medication-assisted treatment is the most effective way to treat opioid addiction and the most effective way to reduce the risks of overdosing. Yet at least 80 percent of people who would benefit from receiving treatment never do.

Addicts instead, because of the lack of access, will turn to the black market to purchase illegal drugs such as heroin or legal (and reliable) medications such as Suboxone. The lack of access to reliable providers of medication-assisted treatment both perpetuates and exacerbates the existing problem.  Providing access is the most logical remedy to bridge people to the care they deserve, and telemedicine seems like it’s poised to be the missing link.

In telemedicine, accessibility to providers has never been easier as the pandemic has removed the red tape around servicing patients this way. For some time, telemedicine has been plugged and advocated for as a remedy for the lack of access – but needless rules, like requiring a patient’s first visit to be in person – continued to lock people out of the care they need and deserve. Covid-19 has led to regulatory changes that have revolutionized telemedicine treatment of opioid addiction. Treatments can now be virtually completed start to finish, Medicare payments to providers are now equal for all appointment types, and the length of the medicinal prescriptions has extended to up to a month.

Harm reduction centers who service populations of addicts who are homeless have gone as far as providing those they serve with disposable cell phones or access to laptops. Wiping out as many barriers as possible, addiction advocates say, is essential to providing people with the appropriate level of care.

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