Substance abuse treatment programs have been available in the U.S. for almost a century, but they were designed around group settings and in-person care. While that model works for certain addictions, like alcohol and cocaine, it’s not considered the best solution for opioids. Telemedicine—medical treatment conducted over the phone, through video conferencing, or via text messaging—has existed in various forms for the past couple of decades and has emerged as a critical resource for opioid treatment.
The need for a remote solution skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it played a crucial role in treating opioid use disorder (OUD) long before that. Traditional addiction treatment presents a range of social and logistical challenges, and telemedicine has helped smooth out the process to get more people the care they need. Here are just a few of the ways that telemedicine opioid treatment has increased access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and changed patient outcomes for the better.
3 ways telemedicine has transformed OUD treatment
1. Increased privacy
Before the infrastructure for telemedicine became as robust as it is now, many patients were hesitant to seek treatment for their opioid use because of the perceived risk of being outed for their condition. Historically, addiction was seen and treated as a moral failing rather than a medical condition, leading to feelings of shame that can prevent people from seeking the help they need.
But addiction is much like a chronic illness: The symptoms can be diagnosed and treated. People can have individual good days, but their symptoms generally worsen over time. And a medical problem deserves a medical solution.
With the rise of telemedicine, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) has become much more discreet, allowing patients to get help without joining an inpatient program or needing to interrupt their normal schedule. This increase in privacy will allow many people to seek treatment without risking their condition becoming public knowledge.
But privacy is about more than just public perception–it can be a matter of personal safety for many people. Across the country, rates of domestic abuse and OUD are highly correlated, and these problems can make one another worse. In many situations where someone is the victim of abuse, leaving the house can arouse the abuser’s suspicions and make the situation more dangerous. This has led to tragically low rates of OUD treatment among victims of domestic abuse. Being able to seek treatment from home has made the process safer and more effective.
2. Helped remove location barriers to care
As if social barriers didn’t cause enough trouble for patients with OUD, geography could also be a significant hurdle. Physical access to treatment locations has long been one of the biggest challenges in addiction treatment.
Because addiction treatment requires specialized knowledge and experience, many healthcare providers are unable to offer it as a regular service. This means someone seeking MAT previously needed to find a clinic with the necessary qualifications. People in rural areas often had no choice but to travel hours in one direction just to start treatment. Even in cities and other densely populated areas, it can still be difficult to find treatment within an hour of home.
These areas, where there are no addiction treatment clinics within an hour’s ride on public transportation, are known as “treatment deserts,” and they are incredibly common throughout the United States. Research published in 2019 shows that 46.4% of counties lack a publicly available OUD treatment facility—and the number jumps to 71.2% when focusing on rural counties.
In many cases, these treatment deserts are at least partially the result of local and state policies that have cut funding to treatment centers or removed them entirely from certain areas.
Telemedicine’s expansion means anyone with an internet connection is now that much closer to successful treatment. Instead of having to spend hours traveling to and from a clinic, patients can consult with opioid treatment specialists online from the comfort of their own homes. This technology has also made it much easier for parents with OUD to seek treatment—instead of needing to find childcare or bring their children to the clinic, parents can now create a treatment schedule that meets their needs.
3. Reduced work disruptions
Even if a person seeking treatment found a facility close to their home or job, they’d need to take time off work to attend daytime appointments. While some people are fortunate to have flexible scheduling and paid sick days, these appointments often eat into whatever time is available, whether it’s accrued PTO or an unpaid absence. For anyone living paycheck to paycheck, losing income because of time off can be enough to deter them from seeking treatment.
In more severe cases, patients may have been referred to an inpatient rehab program, which could last for days or weeks and require a leave of absence or even a job resignation. Even though medical leave for addiction treatment is protected under the Family Medical Leave Act, many patients still found themselves out of a job due to their treatment.
Today, patients can seek telemedicine addiction treatment, which is less disruptive to their work life. Predictable scheduling gives people a better shot at keeping their jobs and keeps more money in their pockets throughout their MAT programs.
Closing the gap for people seeking OUD treatment
Telemedicine has proven to be a vital resource for many healthcare providers and their patients in recent years. Why not get help for opioid use disorder the same way? Ophelia makes it easy to get started with personalized intake calls, dedicated care teams, and Suboxone® or other buprenorphine-naloxone prescriptions sent right to your pharmacy if you’re eligible. All appointments are conducted online, and care teams are available 7 days a week from morning to evening.