Using Telemedicine to Combat the Opioid Crisis

It’s difficult to find a part of the United States that hasn’t been touched by the opioid addiction epidemic. According to the most recent available Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, more than 33,000 people died of opioid overdoses (either prescription drugs or heroin) in 2015. What’s more, each day approximately 91 Americans die of opioid overdoses. But as the results of a new study, first highlighted in Becker’s Hospital Review, demonstrate, telemedicine can play a role in bringing treatment to those struggling with addiction, particularly for patients in underserved communities. “Telemedicine may be an effective alternative to delivering in person OAT [opioid agonist therapy], and it has the potential to expand access to care in rural, remote, and urban regions,” the study’s authors note.

The researchers, all of whom are based in Canada, sought to determine whether or not OAT treatment plans that involved mostly telemedicine visits were as effective as treatment plans that involved only in-person visits. Their results? Patients who had telemedicine visits were more likely to stay in treatment than their counterparts who had only in-person clinical encounters. Further, the results showed that telemedicine-driven OAT could be of particular benefit to rural patients, many of whom are required to travel long distances to access treatment facilities. “We believe that the flexibility that telemedicine-facilitated OAT provides benefits both patients and physicians,” the authors assert. While the United States currently places more restrictions than Canada on telemedicine OAT treatments, Becker’s notes that a three-year Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) initiative begun in 2016 was designed to train rural health care providers in using telemedicine to treat patients with opioid addiction.

In August, President Donald Trump officially declared the opioid epidemic to be a national emergency. “Building upon the recommendations in the interim report from the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, President Donald J. Trump has instructed his Administration to use all appropriate emergency and other authorities to respond to the crisis caused by the opioid epidemic,” a White House statement issued at the time read. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have sought to direct additional resources toward fighting the opioid epidemic. The Every Prescription Conveyed Securely (EPCS) Act, introduced by Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), would require electronic prescribing as a way to combat duplicative prescribing, which is a significant overdose risk factor. And the Addiction Recovery for Rural Communities Act, introduced by Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL), would allot additional resources to rural communities struggling with addiction; the bill specifically stipulates that such resources can be used for substance abuse treatment provided via telemedicine.

Click here to read the Becker’s Hospital Review article on the telemedicine OAT study.

Click here to read the Drug and Alcohol Dependence article on the telemedicine OAT study.

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