Laquicha Westervelt, MSN, FNP-C, Laguna Treatment Center, an American Addiction Centers facility
It’s widely known that the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the mental health of millions of people. For those already suffering with substance use disorder and those who’d never before been diagnosed, the stress and isolation drove huge increases in substance use, relapse and overdoses. Even those who considered themselves only casual drinkers saw their consumption of alcohol increase dramatically, forcing many to seek help.
Unfortunately, lockdowns and facility closures made some people hesitant to go to treatment. In order to protect people from COVID exposure, many would-be rehab patients were inadvertently forced to struggle with addiction, trading one life-threatening risk for another.
But amidst the mental and physicalhealth challenges and despair, one bright spot emerged: the rise of telehealth in treating mental illness and addiction. Thanks to the loosening of regulatory rules and laws governing treatment, and insurers recognizing the imperative to cover remote telemedicine services, telehealth has become a lifeline for those struggling with addiction—sometimes quite literally.
Now, with theoverwhelming need for treatment greater than ever in the wake of the greatest public health crisis of our time, there’s no turning back. Telehealth is here to stay as it has quickly become an essential tool in modern addiction treatment that’s shaping the future to ensure greater access for those in need.
Here’s how telehealth is becoming an essential strategy in the future of addiction treatment:
1) Greater access to care. Even as treatment facilities reopened their doors with appropriate COVID safety protocols, millions were still left without access to treatment. This is especially true in rural areas where people are located hours away treatment facilities, creating a barrier that few can overcome. Telehealth brings these much-needed services to treatment deserts, expanding access to individual and group therapy sessions to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to find help. The fact that providers are now able to treat patients across state lines gives patients access to the specialty providers they need no matter where they live.
2) Patient privacy. Even as substance use disorder becomes more widespread, there’s still a significant stigma and shame surrounding mental health and addiction issues. Many people avoid treatment out of fear they’ll be ostracized or judged if people find out they have a “problem.” Telehealth allows patients to participate in therapy and counseling sessions in the privacy of their own home, so no one needs to know.
3) Compliance. After-care is an essential part of post-inpatient recovery. Patients must have the support and resources they need once they leave rehab to stay clean and succeed on the outside. With the option to schedule visits with their provider remotely via telehealth, patients are more compliant with follow-upslowering readmission rates and reducing symptoms to help keep them on the right path. Patients can even arrange virtual appointments after hours, so they don’t have to take off work or have it interrupt their life.
“Telehealth is here to stay as it has quickly become an essential tool in modern addiction treatment that’s shaping the future to ensure greater access for those in need”
4) Greater freedom and flexibility. For many people, undergoing treatment means saying goodbye to the life they once knew. Some require a change of scenery or a new location to make a fresh start and literally move away from temptation. With telehealth, patients can do just that and still keep their much-needed appointments. I once treated a freelance writer for whom the ability to travel was a key part of continuing the work that he loved. Remote visits allow patients like him to travel and explore—to start a new life in a new area—instead of feeling stuck.
5) Safety. Some vulnerable populations, especially the LGBTQ+ community, may not feel safe traveling to in-person appointments. For example, queer individuals may fear going into larger downtown areas for treatment due to larger populations and the risk of facing physical violence. Telehealth allows these individuals to access care at home or an environment where they feel safe without putting themselves at risk.
6) Thorough after-care. Following in-patient treatment, patients who rely on medication for sobriety often face a gap in treatment between discharge and the first available appointment with an out-patient provider. Often, this means they can’t get in soon enough to get refills on the medications they need and wind-up relapsing. Now that drugs like buprenorphine can be prescribed and monitored remotely, telehealth eliminates that problem, ensuring patients get the treatment and medications they need for a smooth, stable transition.
7) More opportunities for providers. For years, the industry has suffered a huge deficit in providers, in many cases because of limitations on their ability to practice across state lines. With loosened regulations, providers can now expand their practice to treat more patients in more locations, and many can do their work from the comfort of their own home. This provides an incentive for providers to join the industry and help more patients overcome substance use disorder.
While telehealth may not be appropriate in all cases, it’s proven to be a literal lifeline for many. In addition to expanding access to treatment, telehealth is alsoopening doors to even more technology deployment in the space, such as augmented reality or virtual reality simulators to help patients role play and learn to navigate challenging situations before they face them in real life.
Addiction is a complex disease that requires dynamic, personalized treatment for each individual. By keeping telehealth as a key part of the treatment and recovery toolkit, providers can deliver lifesaving addiction treatments that meet the needs of every patient.