Telehealth appointments — meetings with a doctor through a phone or video call — are valuable tools in the fight against opioid use disorder in the United States, researchers say.
The use of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with medications for addiction, reduced the risk for fatal overdose among Medicare recipients, a new study finds.
The study findings support continuing these services.
“The results of this study add to the growing research documenting the benefits of expanding the use of telehealth services for people with opioid use disorder, as well as the need to improve retention and access to medication treatment for opioid use disorder,” said lead author Christopher Jones. He is director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The findings from this collaborative study also highlight the importance of working across agencies to identify successful strategies to address and get ahead of the constantly evolving overdose crisis,” Jones added in a CDC news release.
For the study, the researchers analyzed data among two groups of Medicare beneficiaries with opioid disorder.
Data for the first group — the pre-pandemic cohort — stretched from September 2018 to February 2020. It included more than 105,000 participants.
For the pandemic group, data ranged from September 2019 to February 2021 and encompassed more than 70,000 people.
Medicare beneficiaries who started receiving opioid use disorder-related care during the pandemic, including telehealth services, had a 33% lower risk of a fatal drug overdose.
Those who received medications for opioid use disorder from opioid treatment programs and those who received buprenorphine, a medication for opioid use disorder, in office settings also had reduced odds of a fatal drug overdose of 59% and 38%, respectively.
Death rates from all causes and drug overdoses were higher in the pandemic group than in the pre-pandemic group, the investigators found. However, the percentage of deaths due to drug overdose were similar between the two groups.
“At a time when more than 100,000 Americans are now dying annually from a drug overdose, the need to expand equitable access to lifesaving treatment, including medications for opioid use disorder, has never been greater,” said study co-author Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“Research continues to indicate that expanded access to telehealth is a safe, effective, and possibly even lifesaving tool for caring for people with opioid use disorder, which may have a longer-term positive impact if continued,” Compton added.
These services should not only continue, they should be expanded, the authors noted.
The study findings were published online March 29 in JAMA Psychiatry.
Someone with a substance use disorder may find help through local health centers for substance abuse or by calling the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. SAMHSA also has an Opioid Treatment Program Directory and a handbook called Decisions in Recovery: Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder.
If you have questions about any medicines, you can call the Poison Help Hotline at 1-800-222-1222.
The American Psychiatric Association has more on opioid use disorder.
SOURCE: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, news release, March 29, 2023