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  • Writer's pictureJorge Petit

Breaking Barriers: The Telehealth Transformation of Opioid Treatment


The opioid crisis remains a growing public health concern; according to the CDC there were over 100,000 drug overdose deaths in the 12-month period ending in April 2021, with 75% of those involving opioids. We know that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the opioid crisis, leading to increase opioid use and related deaths due to factors like social isolation, increased anxiety, and disruption in treatment services.


Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) for Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) plays a crucial role in addressing this crisis—offering a beacon of hope in the ongoing battle against opioid addiction. This integrative approach combines FDA-approved medications (buprenorphine, methadone, naltrexone) with counseling and behavioral therapies, creating a holistic path to recovery. Research has shown that MAT reduces the risk of fatal overdoses—particularly among prescribed buprenorphine or methadone—with a substantially lower risk of death compared to those not receiving such treatment. Studies also indicate that MAT increases retention and engagement in treatment programs and individuals are less likely to relapse.


The expansion of telehealth services, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, increased access to MAT, allowing more individuals to receive timely and effective treatment. During the Public Health Emergency (PHE), SAMHSA implemented critical changes, such as allowing the initiation of opioid use disorder treatment, particularly buprenorphine, through telehealth services, updating criteria for provision of take-home doses of methadone, expanding the definition of an Opioid Treatment Programs (OTP) treatment practitioner and several other critical changes. Several studies have shown that telehealth-based MAT can be as effective as in-person treatment; a recent study showed better treatment retention (more likely to stay in treatment for at least 90 days) with individuals starting buprenorphine through telehealth.


The efficacy of MAT in treating OUD is not just about alleviating withdrawal symptoms, it's about reshaping lives by providing a stable foundation for long-term recovery. We are making progress but there is still much more we need to do, and the continuation of telehealth-based MAT provision represents a significant shift in the delivery of care for OUD.


The reason all this is critical is that we must expand MAT even further; approximately 75% of people with OUD do not receive the recommended treatment, and treatment rates are generally lower among people of color and among adolescents. In the latest 2022 National Substance Use and Mental Health Services Survey (N-SUMHSS) approximately 72% of facilities providing substance use treatment offered pharmacotherapies as part of their treatment services, among those 57% reported using MAT for treating opioid use disorder, approximately 42% reported using MAT for treating alcohol use disorder, and approximately 42% reported providing pharmacotherapies for tobacco cessation. Clearly, we need to do better.


The continuation of telehealth-based MAT marks a transformative period in the treatment of OUD and underscores the importance of integrating technology in behavioral health to improve accessibility, continuity of care, and patient outcomes. As behavioral health professionals, it is crucial to remain informed about these developments, advocate for policies that support telehealth in substance use treatment and consider incorporating these practices into treatment models to better serve individuals impacted by addiction, families/caregivers and our communities.


We are at a pivotal moment to embrace and advocate for the continuation and expansion of telehealth-based MAT; these regulatory changes have opened new avenues for treating opioid use disorder, bringing care to those who might otherwise go without. We must it actively participate in policy discussions and advocacy efforts to ensure that these beneficial changes are not just temporary measures, but permanent fixtures in our healthcare system. By doing so, we can play a vital role in shaping a future where quality care is accessible to all, regardless of location or circumstance.


 

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