Telemedicine Could Improve SUD Treatment

January 23, 2019

An estimated 21 million Americans suffer from a substance use disorder (SUD) that relates to alcohol, opioids, or other drugs. However, fewer than 1 in 5 people seek treatment for their SUD.

While there are many reasons why someone may not seek SUD treatment, lack of access to providers can be a large barrier to care. There is a shortage of SUD providers in the nation, especially in rural areas. Telemedicine SUD treatment, or tele-SUD, may be the answer to at least part of this problem. A study in Health Affairs by 30th Anniversary Professor of Health Care Policy Haiden Huskamp, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and health care policy Alisa Busch, MD, MS, department of health care policy biostatistician Jeffrey Souza, associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation Lori Uscher-Pines, associate professor of health care policy (biostatistics) Sherri Rose, PhD, Seidman fellow Andrew Wilcock, PhD, professor of health care policy Bruce E. Landon, MD, MBA, and associate professor of health care policy Ateev Mehrotra, MD, MPH, investigates how telemedicine is utilized in substance use disorder treatment.

The Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Act was recently passed by Congress as they recognized the potential of telemedicine use in combating the opioid epidemic. The act addresses several reimbursement and regulatory barriers to tele-SUD access and will enable tele-SUD patients to receive a controlled substance such as buprenorphine without an in-person exam first.

Although the study of tele-SUD use in a commercially insured population found that use is relatively low, the team believes that tele-SUD could improve treatment engagement and outcomes by providing additional sources and assistance in overcoming barriers that may be preventing patients from receiving treatment. The team suggests that additional studies of different care models that incorporate telehealth into SUD treatment across a range of populations are needed to fully understand the implementation and effects of this treatment technology.

This study has been featured in Science Daily, News Medical, and the Harvard Medical School news