artwork depicting a doctor speaking through a laptop to a woman suffering from substance abuse on a couch. This artwork is for a blog about telehealth for addiciton treatment.

Telehealth For Addiction: Improving Access To Care For Patients In Rural Areas

Many Americans struggled with feelings of anxiety and loneliness amidst the lockdowns and restrictions of the pandemic. As much as 13% of adults reported starting or increasing substance abuse according to the CDC.[1] For those who decided to seek help, the safest and sometimes the only way to access treatment was through telehealth services. This resulted in a 1,500% increase in telehealth visits for addiction treatment.[2]

As the shadow of the pandemic slowly begins to recede, telehealth still remains a popular means of accessing and delivering healthcare. In fact, for behavioral health conditions such as substance abuse disorder (SUD), telehealth may improve access to care for patients living in rural or remote areas, which are often the regions disproportionately affected by substance abuse. 


The Opioid Crisis In The United States

Over the past 20 years, America has witnessed a stark rise in overdose deaths linked to opioid abuse. It’s estimated that between 1999 and 2019, over 841,000 people died as a result of heroin, prescription pain-killers, and other opioid derivatives.[3] In recent years, the problem has shifted from prescription painkillers to heroin cut with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 100 times stronger than morphine.  

While the opioid epidemic has been declared a national health emergency by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the crisis has disproportionately affected rural and remote regions of the country. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, rural counties suffered a higher rate of opioid overdoses than urban counties in 2017. The rate of emergency room visits linked to opioid abuse also increased by 95% between 2010 and 2017 in rural communities.[4] 

In regions such as Appalachia, the picture is particularly grim. The HHS found that Appalachian counties had an overdose death rate that was 72% higher than the rest of the country.[5]  Without access to adequate funding, many communities in Appalachia have not been able to provide the necessary substance abuse treatment resources to help those in need.

Telehealth is a promising avenue to substance abuse treatment for rural regions such as Appalachia where there is a lack of resources and many barriers to care.


How Does Telehealth Work For Substance Abuse? 

Telehealth is the use of telecommunications technology to conduct healthcare activities. Through a HIPAA-compliant video conferencing app on a smartphone, laptop, or desktop computer, patients suffering from substance abuse can connect with providers and receive counseling, screenings and participate in group therapy. 

In the wake of COVID-19, being able to participate in group therapy is especially important for patients in recovery. It can help them overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation which are often the feelings that lead to relapses.  

Patients can also receive medically-assisted treatment. After one initial in-person consultation, ongoing medication monitoring can be conducted through a telehealth platform. This can help reduce transportation barriers to care and increase patient retention, as patients are more likely to complete their treatment program with fewer obstacles in their way. 

Individuals suffering from substance abuse disorders can also receive ongoing messages of support via text, email, and video chat to help them maintain their sobriety. 


Is Telehealth Effective in Treating Addiction?  

There is a growing body of research which suggests that telehealth is an effective treatment option for substance abuse, especially when there are few alternatives available. The Betty Ford Clinic reviewed a series of studies and concluded that telehealth may actually improve patient retention due to the improved accessibility of care. 

The U.S. government seems to agree. The USDA issued 5 grants totaling approximately $1.4 million to support telehealth for addiction treatment in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. These grants are part of a larger plan to implement a telehealth network in rural communities across 32 states.[6]  


The Benefits of Telehealth For Addiction Treatment In Rural Regions

Telehealth can be a useful tool for rural communities impacted by substance abuse. In such communities, where there is often a shortage of behavioral health clinics and resources, telehealth can be used to connect patients with substance abuse disorders to providers. This is especially helpful in breaking down the biggest barriers to care which is lack of adequate transportation in rural areas. Other benefits of telehealth in substance abuse treatment include: 

  • An increased feeling of confidentiality. 
  • Convenience 
  • Reduced stigma 
  • Less anxiety for patients who are nervous to leave the house 
  • No need to take time off work or arrange child care. 
  • Less expensive as patients don’t have to pay for gas, taxis, buses, etc. 


Examples of Successful Programs In Rural Areas 

Over the past several years, we have seen telehealth programs be successfully implemented in rural regions throughout the country. These programs have helped many patients overcome their addictions and reclaim clean, sober lives.

Although temporarily paused, in New Mexico, Project Echo supported primary care providers in rural areas by hosting virtual training sessions in substance abuse treatment and behavioral health. In Madison County, Texas, The Madison Outreach and Services Through Telehealth Network (MOST) connects substance abuse counselors with patients in rural East Texas. 


How Beam Can Help

Beam is committed  to helping providers connect with patients and provide excellent care through our telehealth platform and our practice management tools. If you’re a provider looking to implement a telehealth program for substance abuse, we can help. Beam requires no downloads, is designed to scale with organizations of all sizes, and is more cost-effective than other telehealth services. For more information and to schedule a demo, click here.