Telehealth a New Frontier for Treating Substance Use Disorders

Approximately 20.7 million adults in America suffer from a substance use disorder, according to SAMHSA’s 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.Addiction is a pervasive public health issue in America, and without adequate care, treatment and recovery are nearly impossible for substance users. The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts that there will be approximately 62,900 fewer doctors than required for our population in 2015. With these kinds of numbers, it is essential to utilize innovation and technology to support the mental health needs of the American population.

Telehealth already has gained momentum in the last five years as a reliable and successful new field in healthcare. Not only can patients be seen by a general practitioner for physical illnesses, but they can also be seen by a therapist for mental illnesses. Telepsychiatry has been used successfully for disorders such as PTSD and depression, and providers can yield the same kinds of results in treating substance use disorders via a telemental health platform.

The National Frontier and Rural Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network (ATTC) located in Reno, Nevada, seeks to do just that. The organization hopes to treat all people suffering from a substance use disorder, whether they live five minutes or two hours away from an addiction center. However, it takes more to penetrate rural populations for any matter let alone for addiction. They are further from doctors and may lack transportation, thus not receiving quality recovery treatment.

Through a survey conducted in eight different urban drug clinics in Baltimore, it was found that over 90% of the patients owned a cellphone, with 50% using text messaging technology and 39-45% having access to Internet, email, and/or a computer.

Because so many people have access to a phone and/or to Internet, utilizing telehealth technology could be a great success for targeting both urban and rural populations suffering from substance use disorders. The ATTC has found success in implementing a telehealth platform for cognitive behavioral therapy. When used with clinical care, the program greatly increases the chances of sobriety and recovery from a substance use disorder.

Expanding the availability of counselors and physicians was an essential jump to make in improving the healthcare for populations with a substance use disorder. Those living with an addiction do not suffer on a 9-5 schedule. They suffer on a daily basis, hour-by-hour. Having a telehealth service will increase the accessibility of a professional to reach out and help, without requiring an in-person session.

While incorporating any form of telehealth into addiction counseling is a benefit, in the Addiction Science and Clinical Practice study “Trends in Telemedicine Use in Addiction Treatment,” it was found that among purchasers of addiction treatment in five different states, videoconferening held the most interest for providers. Secure, HIPAA-compliant videoconferencing recreates an in-person interaction. It is important to take note of the different directions that telehealth can take and how it can be implemented into specific practices, such as addiction treatment.

The telehealth field will only continue to grow, improve, and change in the coming years. It is clear that telehealth platforms, such as videoconferencing, are the new frontiers in behavioral healthcare. It is now possible to provide quality care to those with substance use disorders no matter their location, no matter the time, and no matter the service. Utilizing telehealth in addiction centers is the first step towards treating those 20.7 million adults with substance use disorders.