Can Telemedicine Significantly Impact Addiction Treatment?


Can Telemedicine Significantly Impact Addiction Treatment?

Telemedicine offers distinct benefits for addiction treatment as both a supplemental and regular, ongoing care option. There is no doubt that drug addiction, especially involving opiate abuse, is on the rise in the United States and worldwide. And this is not merely politics or rhetoric; it is fact. People suffering from addiction, whether active or not, face many challenges when striving for (and maintaining) sobriety. It is difficult enough to take the initial step to get the help needed. Once that decision is made, those seeking treatment and recovery also have to hurdle insurance, transportation, self-esteem and financial obstacles before they can even begin their rehabilitation and treatment process. Telemedicine offers solutions for some of those challenges and has been shown to significantly impact addiction treatment. But what is telemedicine, and what are its many benefits or drawbacks?

What is Telemedicine?

Telemedicine merges traditional treatment options and the use of advanced, modern technology to add convenience and frequency to medical visits and care management. It takes the place of in-person visits, which allows patients to be treated by their doctors or therapists from the convenience of their own homes. It reduces the need for travel to follow-up visits as well as the wait time for medication management appointments.

Telemedicine is facilitated remotely by computer-based video and audio, which allows the healthcare and addiction treatment infrastructure a wider range of access to the rapidly increasing number of patients in need of care. This benefits the medical system by allowing it to maximize use of its resources and staff. And, it benefits the patients by giving them more frequent access to the care they need without making them deal with the stigma, embarrassment and complications of being around other patients and/or in public. But can the use of telemedicine technology across the video and audio media channels protect patient privacy and confidential information?


HIPAA Compliance

The video conferencing computer and smartphone programs society has grown used to such as Skype, Zoom and Facebook are simply not secure enough to handle the privacy requirements of telemedicine technology.  They, and others like them, are neither HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliant nor should they ever be used for the transfer of medical records and other confidential information. That is why telemedicine providers implement HIPAA compliant, purpose-built telemedicine technology – to project medical records and personal data and ensure safe and secure treatment sessions for all patients.

How Can Telemedicine Significantly Impact Addiction Treatment?

One of the most significant ways telemedicine is impacting addiction treatment is by allowing facilitators to reach more patients in need with less time spent on peripheral obstacles such as travel, sickness or any other delays.

Taking the step to enter treatment and recovery is a major decision for those seeking recovery. Regardless of the type of addiction from which a person is suffering, it has most likely wreaked havoc on their personal, emotional and financial states. Continuously having to seek out transportation, or take any additional step (especially at normal relapse points) to receive treatment, could send a patient backwards as opposed to forward into recovery.

The convenience of having a therapist provide treatment via telemedicine in a patient’s own home can produce an astounding effect on a continued recovery.  So too can the use of hybrid technology and communication-based telehealth technologies such as text alerts for appointment reminders and smartphone applications that can monitor the vital signs and provide peer group support for a patient.

One of the main steps in recovery from addiction is admission into an (often long-term) treatment facility. The biggest issue these impatient options have is when the recovered patient returns to normal life and cannot re-acclimate without being triggered back into active addiction. Some people require a total respite from normal activities to heal. In fact, drugs such as heroin and other opiates all require medical supervision for safe and proper detoxification. But others, such as those who have just managed to hang onto their jobs or who have other crucial responsibilities, often rebel against long-term, inpatient programs because they refuse to leave the rest of their lives behind for months at a time. Telemedicine-based addiction treatments allow the patients to stay within the confines of their own home for treatments and not have to choose between giving up everything in their lives and being clean/sober. It allows for the integration of healthy choices and priorities that are both based on recovery in day-to-day life. Of course, there are also those in more rural communities that have little access to the needed resources in their efforts to improve their lives.

Research and Studies

Research and studies both show that telemedicine, when implemented, has a significant impact on addiction treatment. In general, less than one percent of substance abuse treatment facilities implement telemedicine for addiction treatment compared to a much higher number in other fields involving follow-up and medical recovery-based care. That means those treatment facilities offering the service can be considered cutting-edge and forward thinking.

Not only that: out of eight states and 363 addiction treatment centers researched and studied, 54.85 percent of addiction treatment patients stated a high interest in telemedicine options but only 20.39 percent of the tested facilities offered it. There is an average 37.32 percent differential between patients interested in telemedicine for their addiction treatments and facilities that actually make it available.

And this is in spite of other studies that show a proven, overall benefit to patients who experienced decreases in diabetes symptoms, visits to primary care centers and hospital emergency rooms due to telehealth administration. In fact, the patients in this study were found to be healthier one year later, in spite of having aged a year.

Hybrid Technologies

Telemedicine is a tool to be used in the overall toolbox of advanced, medicine-based technology. Hybrid tech is allowing for virtual interventions, maintaining doctor-patient relationships and remote therapy. It can be the main source of addiction treatment or a supplement to other resources such as IOP (Intensive Outpatient Programs) and Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Virtual, hybrid tech can assist addiction treatment patients in relapse prevention by monitoring their sleep schedules and nutritional intake. It can also benefit facilitators via cloud storage and faster interaction portals between doctors and patients. Patients who do get to experience it report a reduction in stress and transportation costs. Telemedicine used for purposes outside addiction treatment has shown viable increases in health as well. It can particularly benefit rural areas where treatment centers, providers of speciality services, and general resources would otherwise be out of reach to the local population.

Midwest Institute for Addiction is a premier treatment facility in St. Louis, offering telemedicine options.