Telemedicine technology within the substance use treatment field has endless applications. However, when comparing substance use disorder treatment to other areas of healthcare, it lacks a significant universal technology component. Telemedicine technology is not implemented on a national scale in addiction recovery programs. However, there are indications that it has the potential to transform and improve the way we rehabilitate people addicted to drugs and provide support during aftercare. Many applications are already being used, and treatment providers have seen excellent results.

The Application for Telemedicine for Substance Use Treatment is There

Per the International Journal of Telemedicine and Applications, in a study looking at current practices and implementations, telemedicine offers innovative approaches for treating and reducing the effects of substance use disorders. The analysis assessed the use of eleven telemedicine applications among a sample of 363 substance use treatment services in the United States. Fifty percent of the treatment centers expressed a high interest in seven of the applications. The top three self-reported telemedicine applications being used were: computerized screening assessments, telephone-based recovery supports, and telephone-based therapy. There was significant interest in texting appointment reminders, mobile apps for post-treatment recovery, and recovery support chats.

The technology is altering the way substance use treatment and support are delivered. Whether this is through texting, videoconferencing, mobile apps, web-based treatment supports, telephone-based support, and virtual worlds—these are being applied within treatment settings. The COVID-19 Pandemic has proven the need for telehealth. The Federal Communications Commission’s Wireline Competition Bureau has approved over $50 million in funding for telehealth programs across the United States. Telemedicine has given treatment centers, outreach groups, healthcare providers, and community programs the ability to stay connected to the people they help.

A Couple of Reasons Why Telemedicine is Useful for Addiction Treatment

Telehealth compliments services and gives patients a sense of control—every drug rehab program establishes a relationship with its patients face to face. Telemedicine helps maintain that relationship during treatment and while in aftercare treatment. It also becomes a natural companion during treatment, such as applications that provide support groups. Telemedicine also provides updates, primarily via mobile devices, and essentially acts as remote therapy.

Patients who have used telemedicine have felt that they have their health in their own hands, and cell phone technology has made this possible. Those using telemedicine can make solid health choices and work with service providers. Counselors can ask patients direct questions about how they feel and if there is anything they wish to change. Telemedicine and recovery applications provide opportunities for counselors to speak to patients in their natural environments.

Tracking information and taking action—telemedicine allows the patient to chart behaviors, symptoms, track their emotions, and gather feedback. Patients can provide updates to their counselors or peer support groups. It is also used for regular check-ins and getting a comprehensive reading of a patient’s daily life. Patients benefit from seeing the impact of their health plan changes and understand when to scale back treatment when needed.

Along with recording data and taking the necessary action when needed, telemedicine records patients’ conditions and creates health behavior patterns. The combination of tracking and action strengthens the continuity of care. Overall, the patient understands how treatment helps them overcome problems and barriers in life. More importantly, they are connected to a sober community and other like-minded people.

Telemedicine and Opioid Epidemic

In 2018, 67,367 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Synthetic opioids were currently the main driver for drug overdose deaths in the nation. Opioids were involved in 46,802 overdose deaths in 2018, which was 69.5% of all deaths. The states with the highest rate of overdose deaths were West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Hampshire.

Telemedicine has played a vital role in helping people struggling with opioid addiction receive on-demand access to caregivers, addiction support, and recovery tools. Telehealth has helped those battling addiction and in recovery, connect with healthcare providers, support groups, and other recovery information. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic patients access these services in times of crisis, and it has been helpful in keeping recovering opioid addicts connected to the support they need.

Patients reaching out to their primary care providers or physicians can use live video or audio to connect and collaborate with substance abuse experts. Recovering opioid addicts can stay connected to their support groups, which has been essential during the pandemic. Remote patient monitoring and online consultation have also helped map out the recovery process. Addiction recovery experts work with their patients to map out the entire recovery process by collecting data from their patients using telemedicine.

The Future of Telemedicine and Addiction Treatment

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the use of more telemedicine, and treatment providers have had to adapt. The infrastructure was in place for some providers, whereas others had to implement and adapt to the changing conditions. During the pandemic, it is estimated that around 50% to 80% of clinical appointments now is through telemedicine. The technology will continue to be a part of the way people provide substance abuse treatment. Because of the coronavirus, many patients are becoming used to telemedicine. Access to much of the treatment resources also changed due to the virus. However, as restrictions are lifted, more access will be made available, yet telemedicine will continue to play a significant role.

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