Telehealth Flexibilities Reduced Opioid Overdoses

JAMA Psychiatry

A new study in JAMA Psychiatry attracted a lot of attention last week after finding that pandemic-era telehealth flexibilities significantly lowered the odds of medically treated opioid overdoses among Medicare patients.

Researchers from the CDC, CMS, and NIDA examined data from Medicare beneficiaries with a prior diagnosis for opioid use disorder (OUD), separating them into a pandemic cohort of 71k patients who initiated OUD care after telehealth flexibilities were expanded and 105k who sought treatment prior to the onset of the pandemic.

The differences between the two groups were stark: 

  • Roughly 1 in 8 beneficiaries in the pandemic group received OUD-related telehealth services, compared with just 1 in 800 in the prepandemic group.
  • The expanded access to treatment helped 12.6% of pandemic beneficiaries obtain medications for OUD (e.g. methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone), compared with 10.8% of the prepandemic group. 
  • The pandemic cohort saw significantly lower odds of medically treated overdose (odds ratio: 0.67), as well as higher medication retention (OR: 1.27).
  • Pandemic beneficiaries were also far more likely to access virtual behavioral health services than the prepandemic group (41% vs. 1.9%).

The Takeaway

The study served as a boon to telehealth advocacy groups, which have been pushing to make pandemic-era telehealth flexibilities a permanent fixture. The American Telemedicine Association pretty much summed it up in their press release, touting the study as “a strong signal to policymakers that telehealth can and should be a permanent part of healthcare delivery.”

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