Telehealth flourished during the pandemic, and now a new study shows it saved lives: The practice meant more people struggling with opioid addiction stayed in treatment longer and thereby lowered their risk of dying from an overdose.
For the study, researchers analyzed data among nearly 176,000 Medicare beneficiaries from September 2018 to February 2021. The analysis looked at telehealth services, medications for opioid use disorder, and medically treated overdoses among patients starting a new round of care before the pandemic compared to those during the pandemic.
What did the study find? Patients in the pandemic group were more likely to receive telehealth services (19.6% versus 0.6%) and were more likely to receive medications for opioid use disorder (12.6% versus 10.8%). The findings were published online Aug. 31 in JAMA Psychiatry.
Even better than that, using telehealth services was linked to better adherence to medications, as well as a lower risk of having to be treated for an overdose, the investigators found.
“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,” according to senior study author Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).