The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has spurred the healthcare industry toward more innovative ways of providing patient care. Telehealth, for instance, has seen strong adoption rates in recent months, thanks in part to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ investment in telehealth services as part of the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations (CARES) Act.
Telehealth has been effective in caring for patients with behavioral health issues, including those living with opioid use disorder (OUD). By providing patients with higher levels of access and privacy, telehealth can mean the difference between relapse and recovery.
Telehealth also fits with the demands of Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), that is, the providing of buprenorphine and methadone in addition to therapy to treat OUD. As studies suggesting MAT to be more effective in treating OUD than therapy alone continue to be published, regulations around MAT were recently loosened by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
However, despite the purported effectiveness of telehealth and MAT, opioid-related overdose deaths have seen an uptick since at least early 2020, with more than 30 states reporting increases in opioid-related mortality. Rural areas run an especially high risk for opioid-related overdose, as access to healthcare in these areas is an issue.
Rebecca Morgan, the founder and CEO of Missoula, Montana-based Spark Creative who works with physician practices in rural areas to improve OUD treatment in their communities, maintains that innovations like telehealth and MAT can only go so far without providers taking an integrated, team-based model of care for OUD patients.
While there exist designated care coordinators to help patients navigate the ins and outs of their treatment, Morgan suggests that many duties of the care coordinator can be taken up by others on the team. After all, Morgan says, the team-based model of care should involve everyone in the doctor’s office, from the front office receptionist to the medical assistant to those in the billing department. This involvement starts with all medical professionals operating with an “emotional intelligence” regarding OUD.
“We start out with a complete education of what OUD is,” Morgan says. “Too often, only the provider knows that OUD is a chronic condition, not very different from diabetes. We’re trying to level the playing field so that everyone knows what the patient is going through as opposed to just saying, ‘Oh, this person is an addict.’ That’s very much what the team-based model is about.”
Morgan recognizes that telehealth can go a long way toward reducing the stigma of OUD. After all, when a patient no longer has to leave home to consult with their doctor—thus avoiding the doctor’s waiting room—they can enjoy a higher level of privacy and comfort, to say nothing of the reduction in stress that comes with not having to worry about transportation to and from the doctor’s office.
“We’ve made such great strides in telehealth, especially in rural areas,” Morgan says. “My hope and dream is that we’ll continue to do so, and that telehealth will become much more a standard of behavioral care.”
Morgan will be co-hosting a Sept. 24 webinar, “Innovating Care Models for Opioid Use Disorder Patients,” with Faith Jones, director of care coordination and lean consulting for HealthTechS3. In addition to touting the benefits of a team-based approach toward managing OUD patients, Morgan and Jones will talk about ways OUD patients can be integrated into complex chronic care management services for sustainability and increased practice revenue.
“When the pandemic hit, it sort of forced the hand of rural care providers to come up with innovative ways to treat patients in need of chronic care management,” Morgan says. “What we’re seeing is the Centers for Disease Control and the American Medical Association saying, ‘Oh no, overdose deaths are rising again, which is exactly where we didn’t want to go.’ That’s where the team-based model comes into play. It can’t just fall to the primary care provider to help every OUD patient navigate every complexity.”