- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Telemedicine offers “a comparable alternative” to in-person medical treatment for opioid addictions amid the pandemic, according to a new study of U.S. health insurance claims.

Five public health researchers published the study Tuesday in JAMA Network Open, examining 11,801 patient records before and after COVID-19 lockdowns canceled most in-person medical appointments in March 2020.

It found “no significant differences” between virtual and in-person care in the number of drug overdoses, inpatient detox and rehab stays, and injection-related infections patients listed on their insurance claims.

There were also no meaningful discrepancies in the tallies of outpatient visits, of opioid addicts returning after their initial treatment visit and of new prescriptions for opioid use disorder medications.

Meeting doctors by video or telephone “largely replicated the standard model for care delivery,” said lead researcher Michael L. Barnett, a professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Despite potential concerns for safety, we found no evidence that telemedicine care resulted in worse outcomes for patients,” Dr. Barnett told The Washington Times. “There is still much work to be done to improve care, but telemedicine does not appear to have created any barriers or safety issues.”

But telemedicine “doesn’t work for everyone” and is not a complete substitute for regular in-person visits, he added in an email.

“It can make a huge difference for people who would otherwise need to travel long distances or be stuck in traffic to get to an appointment,” Dr. Barnett said. “Or to enhance privacy for sensitive issues like addiction.”

The study compared a pre-pandemic period (March 14, 2019, to March 13, 2020) with a pandemic period (March 14, 2020, to March 13, 2021) after medical providers switched to virtual care.

It focused on medication-assisted treatment, a combination of medicines and behavioral therapy that doctors consider the most effective long-term treatment for opioid addiction.

The findings come as officials have warned of a growing opioid crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a surge in drug overdose deaths from opioids in 2021 pushed U.S. life expectancy to its lowest level since 1996: 76.4 years.

Nearly 300 people died every day from opioid addictions in 2021, according to federal data.

Tuesday’s study confirms that telemedicine has made effective treatment for opioid issues “more accessible to more people,” said Dr. Lauren Weinand, a medical reviewer for Ark Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment facilities.

Many people with opioid addictions avoid treatment due to lack of transportation, fears of COVID exposure or social anxiety, she noted in an email. But the pandemic ended federal and state mandates that addicts meet in person with a doctor before starting medication-assisted treatment.

“The more barriers to personalized, evidence-based addiction treatment can be broken down, the better,” Dr. Weinand said. “It’s important that policymakers continue their efforts to increase access to effective treatment options.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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