SPECIAL REPORT: TELEHEALTH TRANSFORMS DRUG TREATMENT
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns and social distancing have led to a radical shift in healthcare delivery in America—from personal visits between patients and medical professionals to virtual interactions. Drug treatment has also changed: Loosening strict federal regulations in response to the corona virus has already made it easier for patients to secure addiction-withdrawal medications and receive treatment remotely. With these new practices becoming more commonplace, we spoke with treatment providers across the country—at Phoenix House, Horizon Health, Odyssey House and Outreach—about the benefits and possible drawbacks.
There is more access to treatment “from anywhere”
Before COVID-19, telehealth was rarely utilized for drug treatment. But as social distancing and stay-at-home orders took effect, providers quickly adopted platforms to provide treatment via Zoom, FaceTime, webcams and smartphones. Providers say this has strengthened access to treatment, especially in rural areas of the country, and improved outcomes. Patients are generally satisfied with the care they receive via telemedicine, and especially appreciate the convenience that remote therapy provides—whether from home, a shelter or even a car. Most patients do not encounter major hurdles using the new technologies.
The peer dynamic is diminished
Despite these encouraging developments, removing face-to-face contact and group interaction can be problematic. Isolation is a critical issue for those who suffer from addiction, and therefore interacting solely on Zoom or by texting poses challenges: Patients say they miss collaborating with other patients and seeing their providers in person. Peer-based counseling and the therapeutic alliance are critical elements of treatment best done in person—as are wellness checks and mental health assessments.
Telehealth offers advantages, but it is not a panacea
Addiction professionals agree that teleheatlh is here to stay—and the relaxed rules enacted during the pandemic should remain in place. As telemedicine becomes more widely available, patients will find it easier to get access to treatment—wherever they are—and adapt to the new ways of interacting with counselors and therapists. At the same time, providers say they are open to trying new approaches and further integrating viable technologies into treatment practices.
They caution, however, that telehealth should not be regarded as a substitute for in-person treatment, especially long-term residential care. Evidence gathered so far suggests telemedicine appears to work well for some segments of the population, but not for everyone. As such, the providers we spoke with foresee a flexible, hybrid model emerging that blends in-person with on-screen modes of treatment, depending on the patient and the severity of their addiction.
For telehealth to become a valuable component of treatment, we must ensure the following: all patients have access to appropriate treatment, providers are trained to incorporate these new tools, regulations are established to offer uniform, quality service, and financial reimbursement is on par with in-person visits. There are no easy solutions to the country’s drug crisis, but the advent of these new technologies is a promising new dimension.