Telehealth flourished during the pandemic, and now a new study shows it saved lives: The practice meant more people struggling with opioid addiction stayed in treatment longer and thereby lowered their risk of dying from an overdose.
For the study, researchers analyzed data among nearly 176,000 Medicare beneficiaries from September 2018 to February 2021. The analysis looked at telehealth services, medications for opioid use disorder, and medically treated overdoses among patients starting a new round of care before the pandemic compared to those during the pandemic.
“Strategies to increase access to care and medications for opioid use disorder receipt and retention are urgently needed, and the results of this study add to the growing research documenting the benefits of expanding the use of telehealth services for people with opioid use disorder,” said lead study author Dr. Christopher Jones. He is acting director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The findings from this collaborative study also highlight the importance of working across agencies to identify successful approaches to address the escalating overdose crisis,” Jones explained.
What did the study find? Patients in the pandemic group were more likely to receive telehealth services (19.6% versus 0.6%) and were more likely to receive medications for opioid use disorder (12.6% versus 10.8%). The findings were published online Aug. 31 in JAMA Psychiatry.
Even better than that, using telehealth services was linked to better adherence to medications, as well as a lower risk of having to be treated for an overdose, the investigators found.
“The expansion of telehealth services for people with substance use disorders during the pandemic has helped to address barriers to accessing medical care for addiction throughout the country that have long existed,” according to senior study author Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
“Telehealth is a valuable service and, when coupled with medications for opioid use disorder, can be lifesaving. This study adds to the evidence showing that expanded access to these services could have a longer-term positive impact if continued,” Compton said in an NIDA news release.
While the study found telehealth was generally associated with positive outcomes, it also discovered that Black people and those living in the South were less likely to receive these services.
The findings highlight the importance of focusing future efforts on closing the digital divide and reducing inequities in access to care and services.
“The COVID-19 pandemic was an unexpected shock to the U.S. health care system, which consequently offered a unique opportunity to investigate the impact of health care delivery methods on health outcomes among those who were newly diagnosed with opioid use disorder," said lead study analyst Dr. Carla Shoff. She is a social science research analyst at the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
"The findings showed that telehealth improved the receipt and retention of medications for opioid use disorder, suggesting that this method of health care delivery may address common barriers to opioid use disorder-related treatment, such as transportation and perceived stigma,” Shoff said.
The American Psychiatric Association has more on opioid use disorder.
SOURCE: U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, news release, Aug. 31, 2022