It’s a generally known fact that America is battling a growing opioid abuse epidemic, which is contributing to an already high drug-related death toll.  In 2016, there were nearly 64,000 drug-related deaths in the United States, two-thirds of them from opioid abuse.  That’s more than the American death tolls in World War I or the Vietnam War.  In addition to the loss of life, the abuse of both illegal and legally obtained opioids comes at a cost of more than $78 billion per year, according to data provided by the CDC to the USDA.

While substance abuse is a treatable condition, the 40-60% relapse rate for addicts is on par with that of other chronic illnesses, like asthma and high blood pressure, clearly showing that ongoing care and follow-up is necessary for successful treatment.  That’s where telehealth can play a major role in helping stem the tide of opioid abuse, especially in light of a shortage of physicians that is already making access to healthcare specialists challenging.

Initial screening

Telehealth platforms can provide remote screening capabilities that include online questionnaires as well as video interviews, making initial diagnoses easier and faster.  It can allow patients to be screened more efficiently and allows specialists to make better use of their time, regardless of where they are located geographically.  Because in-person screenings may be required, including the need to collect urine samples, telehealth can drive collaboration between local healthcare providers and specialists elsewhere, to expedite the evaluation process and eliminating excessive travel time and costs.

Ongoing observation

Videoconferencing capabilities of telehealth platforms allow psychiatrists, addiction specialists, counselors and others to conduct regular sessions with patients who can participate from their own homes.  It not only provides a more comfortable environment, but helps eliminate the impact of the stigma attached to abuse treatment.  Likewise, telehealth services increases doctors’ availability by enabling them to see patients from anywhere.

Managing medication

While legislation is currently under consideration that would increase practitioners’ ability to prescribe controlled substances via telehealth without in-person visits, telehealth already plays a role in managing medications for patients who have undergone in-person visits.  In addition to allowing doctors to prescribe or refill medications for those patients, digital solutions, such as simple text message reminders or alerts on mobile or wearable devices can remind patients to take their medications.  Virtual visits also allow physicians to notice body language and other reactions that help them understand if patients are taking their medication.

Therapy

Telehealth services can make ongoing group or individual therapy sessions easier to manage, for all parties by eliminating geographic barriers, increasing participation rates.  Participation in therapy sessions creates important connections between patients and doctors, or with other patients.  Those bonds help create support structures that further facilitate recovery.

Relapse prevention

Wearable devices and apps can collect various vital signs and send data to doctors, allowing them to more effectively monitor their patients for signs of relapse.  In addition, telehealth-based services make 24/7 assistance available for patients who feel they are in danger of relapse.

Virtual Reality

New technologies that can be integrated into telehealth solutions, such as virtual reality, are being evaluated for use in addiction recovery.  The idea is that placing patients in virtual environments can not only help identify triggers for drug use, but also help develop skills to resist temptation in the real world.

The use of telehealth in battling opioid addiction and abuse is only in its early stages, but even now, it presents opportunities to make recovery a reality, not just a possibility.

To learn more about how you can implement telehealth services into your organization, click here.

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