Alleviating the Opioid Epidemic in Rural Areas: The Role of Telemedicine

More than 33,000 people died of opioid overdoses (either prescription drugs or heroin) in 2015, according to the most recent available Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. What’s more, each day approximately 91 Americans die of opioid overdoses—many of them in rural communities, where patients seeking treatment for addiction often face significant geographic barriers in doing so. But research has continually shown that telemedicine can help to better connect rural patients with addiction treatment, and the recent public health emergency declaration opens up new possibilities for patients and providers alike. In a piece for CNBC, Jamey Lister, who serves as an assistant professor of social work at Michigan’s Wayne State University, highlights the role that telemedicine can play in alleviating the crisis in rural communities, as well as some of the ongoing challenges that arise with telemedicine’s use. “As a researcher of opioid treatment in Michigan, I’m excited to see the call for greater availability of telemedicine as a way to help rural communities,” Lister writes. “However, telemedicine has important limitations that need to be considered.”

Lister highlights some of the ways in which rural patients, including in his home state of Michigan, are being hit particularly hard by the opioid crisis. Notably, “People living in rural areas were four times more likely to die from overdoses in 2015 than they were in 1999,” he explains, pointing to the limited number of nearby providers and clinics for many rural patients, as well as the fact that “many may feel ashamed or stigmatized if they seek out opioid treatment in their local community.” But “with these issues in mind, telemedicine seems like a promising way to help rural communities, and specifically, to aid in rural opioid treatment,” Lister asserts, referencing the recent Canadian study that showed higher addiction treatment adherence among patients who attended telemedicine sessions. He also points to the limitations of telemedicine; among them, the familiar challenge of limited reimbursement, and scant details from the Trump Administration following the public health emergency declaration about funding for telemedicine treatment programs. All the same, “A few steps, including the advancing of telemedicine, could help save countless lives currently being lost to the opioid epidemic,” he states, encouraging expanded federal funding for treatment programs. He also calls on researchers to do their part: “Universities, especially those located within surrounding rural communities, should develop dedicated rural health initiatives,” Lister explains, adding that he and some “colleagues…are currently conducting a study to better understand rural patients’ views on treatment access.”

On October 26, President Donald Trump officially declared the opioid epidemic to be a public health emergency. That declaration, as we noted at the time, will expand access to telemedicine by permitting remote prescribing of drugs used to treat addiction. While some (Lister included) have urged Trump to go further by declaring the epidemic to be a national emergency, which would allow for access to additional funding for patient treatment and provider training, the general consensus among telemedicine advocates appears to be that the president has taken a step in the right direction. American Telemedicine Association (ATA) President Dr. Peter Yellowlees, for his part, praised Trump’s decision. “Allowing physicians to prescribe controlled substances by telemedicine to treat patients with addictions, using medication assisted treatments, is a very positive move and one that will certainly help more patients to access high quality treatment,” Yellowlees said in a statement shortly following the declaration. Health IT Now Executive Director Joel White also weighed in, saying over Twitter that Trump had taken an “excellent first step.”

Click here to read the CNBC article on using telemedicine to combat the opioid epidemic in rural areas.

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