Addiction Treatment During the Coronavirus Crisis: Know Your Options
During the coronavirus crisis the concepts of telehealth for addiction treatment and telehealth online counseling emerged and blossomed amid a considerable amount of attention to our health care system. The virus response and stay-at-home orders catapulted so-called e-health services to the forefront of public health debates.
Traditional health care became problematic if not impossible during the pandemic as health care providers and patients alike became wary of person-to-person interaction for fear of transferring the virus.
For addiction treatment, a core of many programs is counseling, whether in group settings or on a one-on-one basis. The personal touch that worked for years was disrupted by government directives against humans closely interacting. This happened rather quickly and government and health care officials shifted the industry to accommodate more telehealth for mental health services.
Telehealth for Mental Health Treatment Deemed Critical
To the point, health care professionals involved with treating people addicted to alcohol or drugs were forced online. Telehealth online counseling became a key option during the pandemic emergency – and its widespread accessibility had to occur fast.
The pandemic response may be top-of-mind for most Americans, but mental health officials continue to emphasize the importance of remaining focused on our health and well-being.
“As COVID-19 sweeps across the U.S., closing businesses and schools and forcing many to stay home, telehealth treatment for substance abuse may now be more critical than ever” PBS reported near the start of social distancing in mid-March.1
Further, “At a time when the global pandemic is leading to more and more restrictions on socialization, those in recovery who rely on in-person interactions for accountability and community strength may especially feel the toll,” U.S. News & World Report reported in late March.2
Pandemic Made Telehealth for Addiction Treatment a Timely Option
Many addiction treatment plans begin with a detoxification process, which is best handled under medical supervision. Questions surfaced: How does one receive routine medical check-ups, when the patient or doctor, or both, would be exposed to the virus? What about prescriptions? And, Will insurance cover telehealth services?
Telehealth is delivery of health services via use of videoconferencing, texting, mobile applications or other electronic means. Also called telemedicine, early applications focused on providing health services for people living in remote areas, or who are challenged to visit health offices.3
The virus crisis made telehealth an immediate need. Online meetings on apps like Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet and others proved remarkable toward helping people in recovery stay connected with one another and provide group support.
“Being able to use video conference meetings during this time of quarantine has been a critical part of remaining sober,” said Graham W., creator of a private social media group for Alcoholics Anonymous members to keep in contact through the crisis. “And allows us to be able to interact with others face-to-face without actually being face-to-face. It’s been a life-saver.”
Early Applications of Telehealth Online Counseling
Alcoholics Anonymous is one of several group-therapy options for people in recovery. What about for other uses, such as individual counseling sessions, regular physician check-ups, or keeping up-to-date with prescriptions?
The coronavirus response includes actions by federal and state regulators to ease restrictions on use of telehealth for mental health or related services. For instance, the federal government acted to allow registered health care providers to issue prescriptions through telehealth platforms, without requiring in-person medical examinations.
A news item at the beginning of April claimed most mental health providers already use video services to treat patients 4. Additionally, Marketplace.org reported on coming insurance coverage changes, noting some therapists already use telehealth for critical and timely assistance for clients – regardless whether or not insurance will pay for the services. 5
For addiction treatment, monitoring patients in early recovery is vital to help people vulnerable to relapse due to anxiety or stress, especially during an emergency such as the pandemic. The needs for mental health services beyond the traditional in-office visits are being recognized.
Eventually HIPAA and other health care regulations will be compared with practical telemedicine experiences during the pandemic. Ultimately regulatory changes will occur allowing more widespread application of telehealth services. Seemingly minor adjustments, such as allowing for longer prescriptions than before, may become the norm for telemedicine.
Varying Types of Telemedicine Settling In
The Mayo Clinic proves a solid summary of the types of telehealth services available or coming soon 6. In recent years some became common, such as website health portals, or telephoning or videoconferencing with nurses.
Regarding telehealth for mental health treatment, simple options like recovery support chats, or text messages to remind of upcoming appointments or even just motivational messages, can go a long way toward keeping patients engaged with their recovery program.
A key benefit of telehealth for addiction treatment is the expansion of accessibility. Access to mental health-related services now are available rather easily for treatment for addiction or alcoholism, or other mental disorders. Some have even argued telehealth may be superior to in-person care as it widens the availability of treatment for those who need it. 7
Telehealth services and the technology that support it are burgeoning options in the nationwide challenges of treatment for addiction to drugs or alcohol.