Telehealth Has Increased Access to Medication for Opioid Use Disorder During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Telehealth has long been available in areas of US healthcare, but it was not widely used for the treatment of opioid use disorder (OUD) until emergency policy changes were enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two studies reported on the increased use of telehealth to treat OUD in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared with before.

A longitudinal cohort study of adult Medicare beneficiaries with OUD compared patient outcomes pre- and during the pandemic. Outcomes included receipt of and retention in treatment with medication for OUD (MOUD); receipt of OUD-related telehealth services; and experiencing medically treated overdose.

  • Compared with prior to the pandemic, significantly more individuals received OUD-related telehealth services (20% versus 0.6%) and MOUD (13% versus 11%) during the pandemic.
  • Receipt of OUD-related telehealth services during the pandemic was associated with increased odds of MOUD retention (adjusted odds ratio [aOR], 1.27), and lower odds of medically treated overdose (aOR, 0.67), compared with prior to the pandemic.
  • Compared with those who did not receive MOUD, people treated with MOUD from an opioid treatment program (aOR, 0.54) and those receiving buprenorphine from pharmacies (aOR, 0.91) had lower odds of medically treated overdose.

The second study was a survey of programs in Pennsylvania that offer MOUD, and their descriptive data about telehealth utilization.

  • Most programs offered MOUD telehealth; female, white, non-Hispanic individuals were most likely to engage in these services.
  • Patient enrollment in services was high and no-show rates appeared to decline during the study period.

Comments: Policy changes in the US allowing the expansion of telehealth for treating OUD during the COVID-19 pandemic have been important tools for increasing access to MOUD. Given that opioid overdose rates continue to increase, telehealth and other innovations will be needed to ensure that all individuals with OUD have rapid, low-barrier access to these lifesaving medications.

Melissa B. Weimer, DO, MCR

References: Jones CM, Shoff C, Hodges K, et al. Receipt of telehealth services, receipt and retention of medications for opioid use disorder, and medically treated overdose among Medicare beneficiaries before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. JAMA Psychiatry. 2022;79(10):981-992.

Poulsen MN, Santoro W, Scotti R, Henderson C, Ruddy M, Colistra A. Implementation of telemedicine delivery of medications for opioid use disorder in Pennsylvania treatment programs during COVID-19. J Addict Med. 2022 [E-pub ahead of print]. doi: 10.1097/ADM.0000000000001079.

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