Study: Increased Use of Telehealth OUD Services During Pandemic Cuts Overdose Risk

Findings support the value of expanding this type of health care for patients with opioid use disorder.

The expansion of telehealth services related to the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with individuals with opioid use disorder (OUD) staying in treatment longer, reducing the risk of medically treated overdose, according to the results of a study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

In the national study, investigators analyzed data among 175,778 individuals who had Medicare insurance between September 2018 and February 2021. They analyzed the receipt of telehealth services, medications for OUD, and a medically treated overdose among individuals with OUD who started a new episode of care prior to the pandemic compared with those during the pandemic.

“Strategies to increase access to care and [medication for] OUD receipt and retention are urgently needed, and the results of this study add to the growing research documenting the benefits of expanding the use of telehealth services for people with OUD,” Christopher Jones, PharmD, DrPH, acting director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC, said in a statement. “The findings from this collaborative study also highlight the importance of working across agencies to identify successful approaches to address the escalating overdose crisis.”

Investigators had 2 groups of individuals who are on Medicare: 1 group initiated an episode of OUD-related care before the COVID-19 pandemic, while the other initiated care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Investigators found that those in the pandemic group were more likely to receive OUD-related telehealth services compared with the pre-pandemic group at 19.6% and 0.6%, respectively. They also found that the pandemic group was more likely to receive medication for OUD at 12.6% and 10.8%, respectively.

Additionally, of those in the pandemic group, receipt of OUD-related telehealth services was associated with significantly better medication for OUD treatment retention, as well as a lower risk of medically treated overdose compared with those not receiving OUD-related telehealth services.

“The expansion of telehealth services for people with substance use disorders during the pandemic has helped to address barriers to accessing medical care for addiction throughout the country that have long existed,” Wilson Compton, MD, MPE, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in the statement.

“Telehealth is a valuable service and when coupled with medications for [OUD] can be lifesaving,” he said. “This study adds to the evidence showing that expanded access to these services could have a longer-term positive impact if continued.”

Furthermore, investigators determined that some groups were less likely to receive these services, including non-Hispanic Black individuals and those who live in the South.

The outcomes of the study support further research to determine how to eliminate the divide on telehealth health care and reduce underlying inequities in access to care and services.

The study was led by investigators at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Reference

Increased use of telehealth for opioid use disorder services during COVID-19 pandemic associated with reduced risk of overdose. News release. Science Daily. August 31, 2022. Accessed September 2, 2022. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/08/220831114042.htm