Benefits of Telehealth for Treating Addiction During COVID-19

Drug Addicted Woman Reaching For Medication

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone in the country and, indeed, worldwide. As with any major problem, however, certain communities have felt the brunt of the problem more acutely than others. Patients with substance use disorder have found themselves kicked out of group homes, denied access to their counselors and physicians, or faced with the unconscionable choice between treating their addiction or protecting themselves from a deadly illness. Telemedicine provides an avenue for continued, effective treatment for addiction while the pandemic continues, in a setting that is safe, comforting, and contagion-free.

The Coronavirus Pandemic is Shutting Down Treatment Centers

The coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses around the country, and around the world, to shut their doors or at least limit their capacity. Government-mandated lockdowns have closed the doors of “nonessential” businesses. Moreover, when businesses remain open (or have reopened since lockdowns have ended), COVID-19 outbreaks have led to closures regardless. Addiction treatment centers have hundreds of patients, nurses, and other staff members, any of whom might be less than careful with their behavior or resist preventative measures such as vaccines. As a result, addiction treatment centers (like other group living facilities and communal settings) have become Petri dishes for COVID-19 outbreaks. Patients are at risk of serious reactions to the virus, and others are left with nowhere to stay or seek treatment.

Even when treatment centers remain open, certain patients are much more reluctant to attend in-person sessions. Many addicts suffer from a variety of health problems and have weakened immune systems. Diabetes and cardiovascular issues are common among patients with a substance use disorder. Exposure to COVID-19 is especially dangerous for them. Many patients do not consider addiction treatment to be a “vital” medical service in the face of potential contagions, preferring to restrict medical visits to immediate, life-threatening events.

With telemedicine, addiction treatment can continue regardless of the dangers of in-person meetings. Patients can remain isolated, connected to counselors from their own homes or from limited capacity offices rather than in group homes or contagion-laden medical offices. Patients and counselors alike are safer, and, nearly as important, they feel safer. Patients will be more inclined to continue their sessions and stick to their treatments because they are not faced with the choice between seeking treatment for their condition and protecting themselves from a deadly virus.

The Pandemic Has Added Stressors Leading to Relapses

Treating substance use disorder is an ongoing battle. Unusually stressful situations can lead to relapses, and relapses can lead to overdoses. Many patients struggling with substance use disorder have discussed the uncertainty, the isolation, and the anxiety that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought. Patients have also reported feeling “irrelevant,” that no one cares about them, especially as they lose access to their group treatment centers. Relapsing into drug use then becomes the coping mechanism. Health experts have referred to this conflux of issues as a “collision of epidemics,” between the opioid abuse epidemic and the coronavirus pandemic.

Regular, direct, and easy access to abuse counselors and psychiatrists is vital in limiting relapses and preventing overdoses. Telemedicine offers a pathway for patients to have a direct link to their treating physician and counselors, permitting texts and email communications even between visits. Moreover, videoconference counseling and group sessions keep patients from feeling overly isolated and allow for some semblance of normalcy. Direct communication limits the incidence of relapse, keeping patients safe and healthy.

Studies Show: Telemedicine Works

A number of recent studies have concluded that telemedicine can be just as effective, if not more effective, at treating conditions like substance use disorder and mental health issues. As explained in an article recently published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, telehealth “has been shown to provide substantial patient and provider satisfaction with the delivery of care” and there is “a growing evidence base to support the benefit of telehealth in access to SUD [substance use disorder]-related care.” The COVID-19 pandemic “makes it imperative for clinical practice to adapt rapidly to meet patient needs for SUD treatment while reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection.” Telehealth is a vital avenue for treating substance use disorder and should be expanded in accordance with the recommendations of medical professionals around the country.

If you are a healthcare provider or employer who would benefit from a variety of licensed and experienced psychiatric care specialists, reach out to Orbit Health to discuss your options for telepsychiatry today.

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