The need for addiction treatment hasn’t stopped with the spread of COVID-19. In fact, the coronavirus presents new challenges and barriers to people with substance use disorders. Mental health issues and addiction may also be worsened by the added stress that’s caused by a worldwide pandemic. However, one of the ways the addiction treatment industry may help to overcome those barriers is through telemedicine. The coronavirus, and the quarantine efforts that are used to control it, have created a need to virtually connect. Everyone can benefit from technology like video conferencing to connect with friends, family, and coworkers. But those tools can also help you connect to medical and clinical professionals while you maintain your social distance.

Learn more about the benefits and disadvantages of telemedicine and how it could help people who need addiction treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine is the use of technologies like video conferencing to provide healthcare at a distance. In most cases, a medical or clinical professional connects with a patient at home for counselling or a consultation. Telemedicine falls under the broader category of telehealth, which involves the use of information technologies in the field of healthcare. Telehealth has existed before the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, long distance health care has existed long before the internet.

Modern telehealth got its start in the 1800s with the advent of technologies like the telegraph and telephone. Physicians could communicate with patients that they would otherwise not be able to see on a regular basis. This has been useful for infirm or elderly patients that might have trouble making regular trips to doctors offices. As communications technologies have grown, telehealth and telemedicine can become more robust, including face-to-face communication with video conferencing tools.

The need for telemedicine has been highlighted by COVID-19. Just as conferencing tools like Zoom have scrambled to help collaborative businesses connect while social distancing, telemedicine is rapidly becoming an important aspect of healthcare. The coronavirus has made it so limiting person-to-person contact can help keep people healthy while we wait for a vaccine. But increased access to telemedicine comes with other benefits as well.

Benefits of Telemedicine

As technology advances, telecommunication services are becoming more reliable and secure. That makes it more viable to provide medical medical consultations and counselling services remotely. Telemedicine comes with a number of benefits, including the obvious advantage of limiting potential virus exposure. It also removes barriers to treatment that might prevent people from seeking the care they need. In the world of addiction treatment, people with substance use disorders face several barriers to care that they must overcome to address their addiction. Stigma, cost, travel, and time are all possible roadblocks to recovery.

Telemedicine may be able to bridge the gap between clients and care for some of these issues. Plus, counseling sessions and one-on-one therapy are a big part of addiction treatment, and those aspects of care may be easier to translate to an online setting than many aspects of medical care.

Distance and travel may make it difficult for some people to get adequate care and the ability to connect with a healthcare professional at home is much easier than traveling to them. During the coronavirus, this benefit is clear, but it can also help people that have health or mobility  problems, that would be better off staying home.

It also helps with time management. Many people with SUD’s feel they don’t have time to step away from their duties like work or childcare. Ironically, addiction slowly starts to take up more and more of your day as your condition worsens. Still, telemedicine can help to ease time burdens. Instead of spending travel and waiting room time going to go to therapy, they can schedule a time for a telemedicine meeting.

Telemedicine may also reduce healthcare costs that are usually associated with office visits and travel. In addition to advantages during treatment, it gives clinicians a way to follow up with clients after treatment, even if they move or return home.

Drawbacks of Telemedicine

Though there are many advantages of telemedicine, it can’t replace traditional health care and addiction treatment across the board. When it comes to addiction, telehealth is best for an outpatient level of care. However, higher levels of care like medical detox and inpatient treatment still require in-person care. In some cases, outpatient treatment may still require in-person meetings as well. In addiction treatment, the intake and assessment process requires physical examinations, which are only possible in-person.

In addiction treatment higher levels of care are necessary for people with severe medical or psychological problems that need to be managed or monitored.  If a client can live independently without jeopardizing their health or sobriety, telemedicine isn’t for them.

Telemedicine requires both healthcare providers and patients to have the necessary equipment and internet connection. Subpar equipment may get in the way of a therapy session, frustrating both clients and their clinicians.

In counseling, the space it takes place in is often seen as an important element. Clinicians often put thought into the meeting area, ensuring a safe and comfortable environment for their clients. However, in telemedicine, clinicians have limited control over the meeting environment. On the client’s end, they may find it difficult to open up to a clinician if their roommates or family members are in the next room.

Some aspects of treatment may be easier in person. Counselors may be trained to pick up on body language and tone of voice that don’t translate as well over a video call. Other therapies with a physical component like EMDR, may be more difficult to perform online.

Many of the complications related to telemedicine revolve around insurance reimbursement. Healthcare is still adapting to telemedicine as an option, so insurance reimbursements may be more difficult to get for telemedicine in some states. However, COVID-19 is forcing the healthcare industry to work to make telemedicine a viable option. For instance, you can now get prescriptions after a live video assessment, without the need for an in-person visit, in some cases.

Is Telemedicine Effective?

Though telemedicine has its advantages and disadvantages, its effectiveness has been studied scientifically. A 2015 study looked at the effectiveness of telemedicine in the treatment of cardiac patients. These patients required behavioral interventions to help manage heart-related issues. The study found that telemedicine interventions had significantly fewer hospital admissions and fewer total days spent in hospitals. Not only does this mean that the patients likely enjoyed better quality health, they also saved in healthcare costs.

However, does this effectiveness translate to addiction treatment. People with SUDs face other challenges that someone with heart disease doesn’t. Sustained treatment participation is a challenge for people with SUDs, especially if they near a relapse. Telemedicine would not be effective in people with a high risk for continued drug use or relapse. A review in 2011 found that sustaining participation was an issue in telemedicine but that the majority of participants were enthusiastic supporters of the programs they were in.

With the spread of COVID-19, more doctors and clinicians are using telemedicine to reach out to clients with SUDs. As technology gets better, and healthcare systems adapt to telemedicine, it may grow as a viable healthcare option.

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