While stigma against substance use disorder (SUD) has decreased over the years, it still presents barriers for those who need help. Many people may struggle to access treatment because of a lack of transportation, scheduling conflicts or financial constraints. Luckily, telehealth addiction treatment can help overcome these obstacles. With telehealth, patients can meet with their counselors and work on recovery activities from the comfort of their home. These sessions closely resemble in-person counseling sessions and can be just as effective as traditional therapy.
While many addiction and mental health providers have long used telehealth to provide services, this form of therapy gained momentum during the COVID-19 pandemic as it offered a way for patients to avoid the travel restrictions imposed by their local health departments. Moreover, a study found that even in the most heavily affected communities, telehealth addiction treatment was as successful as face-to-face sessions, and that gaps in access to treatment did not worsen during the pandemic, particularly for those with insurance.
The findings of the study, published in Psychiatric Services, were based on a review of eight studies, responses to an online survey of California-based addiction treatment providers and interviews with provider staff members. Results indicated that treatment professionals were most comfortable using telehealth for one-to-one counseling. When it comes to group counseling, a number of providers noted that virtual sessions can be difficult to establish rapport and connection with participants and are not ideal for certain patients, including those with social anxiety.
In addition to increasing the reach of addiction treatment, telehealth has also made it easier for people with SUD to follow social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders. For example, a patient can receive a text message reminding them to attend their telehealth appointment or a calendar reminder, making it less likely that they will miss their session. Furthermore, if a person with SUD is experiencing cravings and urges to use, telehealth can be a lifesaver as it allows them to communicate with their counselor, who can then recommend coping skills.
Although telehealth is an important and growing tool, there are still challenges to its widespread use. For example, some telehealth addiction treatments require specialized software and hardware that not all rehabs or patients have access to. Additionally, telehealth services are not an ideal option for people who are experiencing homelessness or do not have stable housing.
Despite these limitations, telehealth is an essential tool for SUD treatment and could potentially expand the availability of care for individuals who need it. To further improve telehealth addiction treatment, providers need to make sure their telehealth services are user-friendly and available in communities with limited technology infrastructure. They must also focus on strategies that reduce the impact of stigma and address other barriers to accessing care. For example, by connecting with community organizations to increase referrals and help patients navigate resources, providers can promote a positive experience for their clients. As the resumption of normal operations and easing of restrictions continues, it is vital for addiction treatment providers to consider how they can leverage telehealth to meet the needs of their clients.