Opioid use disorder (OUD) affects 7.6 million people in the U.S., but the number of people receiving treatment is much, much lower. There are several barriers that prevent individuals from getting the help they need, from unfair stigma to lack of reliable transportation. The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic only complicated matters by limiting physical access to healthcare providers.
Over the last few years, virtual communications changed the way we do everything, from working and studying to receiving medical treatment. And this shift has prompted medical professionals to advocate for more allowances to prescribe medications for OUD via telemedicine. The availability of telemedicine addiction treatment predates the pandemic, but its recent expansion has the potential to turn the tide on the opioid epidemic and save lives.
Unfortunately, many misconceptions about using telemedicine for opioid treatment still exist. We’re here to dispel these myths and reveal the true benefits of remote treatment.
Myths about telemedicine for opioid treatment
1. You need to visit a clinic to access medication
Until recently, access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) was heavily regulated, and in-person appointments were required. But early in the pandemic, the COVID-19 public health emergency (“PHE”) loosened restrictions on prescribing controlled substances through telemedicine. This legislation expanded access to MAT, removing barriers and making it easier for patients to begin and continuously receive care.
The COVID-19 public health emergency was originally set to end on May 11, 2023, but the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) put forth a temporary extension of the telemedicine flexibilities implemented at the height of the pandemic. The updated guidance creates a six-month extension that runs through November 11, 2023.
Any telemedicine patients established before or up to that date will be covered by the prescription guidelines established during the initial public health emergency for one year. That means anyone being prescribed a controlled medication will still have access to it until November 11, 2024.
It’s important to note that the DEA received a record number of public comments on their proposed telemedicine guidelines, highlighting the significance of this topic among practitioners and public health leaders. The agencies indicated that they took this feedback seriously in order to address the need for continued access to buprenorphine as a medication for opioid use disorder. Even though the guidance is framed as an extension of COVID-19 public health emergency policies, access to telemedicine is also tightly interwoven with the opioid public health crisis.
2. Finding a doctor authorized to prescribe Suboxone® is rare, especially online
Over the years, finding clinicians certified to prescribe medication has been a significant hurdle. Many doctors did not offer buprenorphine because doing so would require X-waiver certification and additional education to learn and implement buprenorphine protocols.
The recent removal of the X-waiver requirement allows MAT providers to prescribe buprenorphine without this specific certification, meaning more providers can give patients the care they need. Now any provider licensed to prescribe controlled substances can offer Suboxone through telemedicine. According to Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, only 13,000 providers in the U.S. had an X-waiver. Since the X-waiver was removed, the nearly two million providers already registered with the DEA can now prescribe buprenorphine, although there are widespread concerns they will decline to do so because of the learning and protocols involved.
Eliminating the X-waiver is intended to make finding an MAT provider easier and helps remove the stigma of seeking care. When buprenorphine is treated like any other controlled substance, it erases the idea that this medication is uniquely “dangerous.” But it remains to be seen whether this change will make a meaningful difference for people seeking treatment.
3. Forcing people to see providers in person ensures telemedicine is safe
The fact is, forcing people to undergo any type of treatment rarely works. Of the limited research on the subject, most studies concluded that compulsory treatment is ineffective, and some found that it increases the risk of relapse.
Anyone wanting MAT needs to do so voluntarily, and they must be able to do it on their own terms. Offering more options for treatment expands access, and restricting access does not keep people safe. Whether they don’t have access to transportation, don’t have time to travel hours to an appointment, or feel uncomfortable going to a clinic, no one should be forced to see providers in person. Telemedicine gives people a choice if they are interested in treatment.
In addition to creating convenience for many patients, telemedicine providers value privacy and discretion—just like a brick-and-mortar healthcare facility—while destigmatizing substance use disorder.
4. Telemedicine can’t provide holistic support
Telemedicine can easily support a holistic approach to medications for addiction treatment. The goal of telemedicine is much broader than simply prescribing medication; it is about providing comprehensive care and support. For example, your Ophelia care team can diagnose and treat behavioral, psychological, and psychosocial disorders, as these issues often intersect with OUD.
5. You don’t need to be a “real doctor” to be a telemedicine provider
This simply isn’t true—telemedicine providers must complete their medical training, which may include licensure or a medical degree. If a practitioner is qualified to provide care in person, then you should be able to meet with them virtually and receive the same standard of care.
6. It takes a long time to get your medication if you’re booking a telehealth appointment
As long as you are determined to be a good fit for MAT, it will not take long to get your prescription. Ophelia has a simple, stress-free process to ensure your treatment can begin seamlessly. First, you connect with a dedicated care team over telemedicine. After your consultation, we’ll build a customized treatment plan and send your prescription to your pharmacy. It’s that easy.
Telemedicine flexibility ensures people with OUD can get treatment when and where they want it. When you’re ready to get started with Ophelia, you can set up a free 15-minute welcome call.