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Using Telemedicine to Fight the Opioid Crisis

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, every day, more than 115 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. The addiction to and misuse of these powerful drugs including heroin, fentanyl, and a list of prescription pain relievers has risen to the level of a national crisis that poses severe social and economic consequences. The CDC estimates that the cost of prescription opioid abuse in the US is more than $78 billion each year when the costs of healthcare, addiction treatment, criminal justice, and lost productivity are accounted.

The Facts About Opioid Abuse

The seriousness of the opioid crisis comes into sharp focus when the following facts are considered:

  • Approximately 21 – 29 % of people prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them.
  • Roughly 8 – 12 % develop an opioid use disorder.
  • Sadly, an estimated 4 – 6 % of patients who abuse prescription opioids eventually move to heroin and about 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.
  • Opioid overdose rates increased 30 % from July 2016 through September 2017 in 52 areas across 45 states.
  • The Midwestern experienced an opioid overdoses increase of 70% from July 2016 through September 2017.
  • Opioid overdoses in large cities increased by 54 percent in 16 states.
    Connected Care as a Solution

To find innovative ways to address the crisis, healthcare providers are turning to treatment plans that integrate addiction management with behavioral and psychiatric care. Practical solutions will need to address both the public health and personalized attention.

Traditional addiction treatment plans have been centered around group therapy and in-office physician care, but modern technology makes a more comprehensive treatment plan possible by leveraging connected, digital healthcare solutions to allow providers and patients to interact any time, from anywhere. Practical applications of telehealth technology to treat opioid addiction include:

Removing barriers to care for patients by allowing them to enjoy remote visits with their medical and mental health providers from the comfort of their own home.

  • Mobile applications that provide access to care resources, peer support, information about coping skills, and even real-time access to care providers during a crisis
  • Messaging solutions that let caregivers, peers, or family members offer encouragement and support
  • Strategic deployment of mobile health units to bring resources to rural communities, urban neighborhoods or other places like prisons and schools that lack sufficient access to care.
  • Connecting providers in high-impact areas with opioid abuse experts in distant locations to receive advice and training about the latest developments in addiction treatment.
  • Wearable technology that tracks the patient’s vital signs and alerts providers when something is wrong.
  • Applications that follow medication compliance and devices that can even deliver prescribed doses of medicines

Removing Barriers to Care

In a recent article, Health IT Outcomes explained how telemedicine eliminates some of the obstacles that keep patients from seeking the help they need. “Effective addiction treatment requires patients to attend a rehab center for the following three stages: detox, therapy, and extended care. Many patients (and their families) are naturally apprehensive of such measures due to both social and cultural stigma associated with frequenting such institutions. With telemedicine, a patient can attend rehab sessions virtually and take part in support groups and other community meetings from the comfort of their home. This reduces the burden on the system and ensures greater participation from individuals who are in need of rehab treatment for substance abuse. Furthermore, telemedicine significantly increases retention of patients needing extended care after completion of rehab which is often recommended to prevent relapse.”

In addition to resolving privacy concerns, telemedicine also decreases the economic costs of treatment. Patients don’t have to incur any travel expenses, pay for child care, or miss time at work. Providers can help more people with the same resources and often offer appointments at a lower rate. Fortunately, many states see the benefits of telehealth and have enacted parity laws that require insurers to cover remote visits for addiction treatment and other healthcare services.

Solving the opioid crisis will require creative thinking on many fronts. The way that pain is treated generally will need to be addressed along with the ease of access to prescription and street drugs. Preventing addition is clearly the best outcome. However, for patients who do require treatment, technology has a huge role to play in increasing access to care and making it as convenient as possible and improving the chances of each person’s long-term success.