Study Finds Telehealth Reduced Opioid Risk During Pandemic

A study published in JAMA Psychiatry has revealed that opioid use disorder-related telehealth care during the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with lower chance of a medically treated overdose and improved retention of medication use. 

The study was obtained from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services between September 2018 to February 2021. The study was performed using data from Medicare fee-for-service recipients who were 18 years of age or older and had been given an opioid use disorder diagnosis based on ICD-10 codes. A prepandemic cohort of 105, 240 beneficiaries and a pandemic cohort of 70, 538 beneficiaries made up the two groups.

In the study, the researchers discovered that approximately 20 percent of recipients in the pandemic group received OUD-associated telehealth services in the study period, in contrast to 1 percent of prepandemic patients. Additionally, the study found that the pandemic group of patients had a higher likelihood of using virtual care for behavioral health. Furthermore, approximately 13 percent of pandemic recipients had access to OUD mediations such as buprenorphine, methadone, and extended-release naltrexone, as opposed to approximately 11 percent of prepandemic recipients. 

The study discovered that undergoing OUD via telehealth was linked with greater odds of remaining on medication for OUD and decreased odds of overdose, despite the number of people who suffered an overdose that required medical attention was identical in both groups. The researchers state, “the use of telehealth during the pandemic was associated with improved retention in care and reduced odds of medically treated overdose, providing support for permanent adoption. Strategies to expand provision of MOUD [medications for opioid use disorder], increase retention in care and address co-occurring physical and behavioral health conditions are urgently needed in the context of an escalating overdose crisis.”

The researchers also discovered several inequities in access to care. Beneficiaries who were non-Hispanic African Americans had a reduced likelihood of using telehealth services for OUD or mental health issues, as well as a lower likelihood of keeping their prescription. Additionally, recepients who were non-Hispanic African Americans, American Indians or Alaska Natives, or Asians or Pacific Islanders had increased overdose risk. Despite this, the researchers contend that telehealth is a crucial method of care for opioid use disorder. However, they believe that further research is needed to address the inequities in access to care.