Telehealth Treatment On The Rise For Substance Use Disorders In The U.S.

Published on

Telehealth services were an option at many substance abuse treatment facilities before the pandemic but, along with telehealth services in other medical fields, have since been on the rise.

What Is Telehealth Addiction Treatment?

Many aspects of daily life underwent radical change during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the coronavirus began spreading in 2019, it was in 2020 that many people saw lockdowns in their states.

This changed healthcare for a time, increasing the popularity of telehealth medical services, including using virtual services for substance abuse treatment. Telemedicine remains a popular choice for people today.

What Is Telehealth Addiction Treatment?

Telehealth addiction treatment refers to addiction services that take place remotely by accessing them through a telephone, smartphone, or computer.

Telehealth addiction services can include:

  • assessments
  • individual counseling
  • group therapy
  • addiction education
  • follow-up appointments

Telehealth services provide many benefits for people battling substance use disorders (SUDs) but also come with limitations.

Why Are Telehealth Options Important?

Even before the pandemic, telehealth options played an important role in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction.

Notably, people living in rural areas, where medical services may be limited, could access addiction treatment by telephone or via the internet with their smartphone or computer.

This helps break down barriers to care that limited options and long commutes may present for people in these communities.

Substance Abuse Treatment And The Pandemic

Although telehealth options were available before the pandemic, substance abuse treatment was mostly provided face-to-face.

However, when lockdowns went into place, options like residential or inpatient treatment became limited.

To make matters worse, substance use rates and the number of people experiencing fatal and nonfatal overdoses increased during the pandemic.

In response, addiction recovery centers increased their telehealth options to meet the new demands created by the pandemic.

In 2015, 25.7% of addiction treatment facilities offered telehealth services, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). In 2019, it was 27.5%.

However, over the next year, that number jumped by more than 30% so by the end of 2020, 58.6% of treatment facilities were offering telehealth services.

White House Support For Telehealth Services

At least part of the reason for the sharp increase in the use of telemedicine for addiction treatment was due to government support.

During the pandemic, the government relaxed regulations on the substance abuse industry, making it easier for medical professionals to provide services such as medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

In June of 2022, the Biden-Harris Administration made recommendations for increasing access to addiction treatment services, especially for people in underserved populations.

Recommendations included a permanent change in regulatory restrictions to allow people easier access to MAT.

Benefits Of Telehealth Services For Substance Abuse Treatment

There are several benefits to telehealth services for substance abuse that extend beyond the context of the pandemic.

These benefits help remove barriers to addiction treatment by meeting clients where they are and providing the care they need.

More Options

In smaller, more rural communities, it is often difficult to find a variety of addiction treatment providers.

Telehealth services provide clients with a much larger pool of knowledgeable, compassionate treatment providers to choose from, including those who provide specialized treatment.

Shorter Wait Times

People who need immediate addiction treatment services can often find shorter wait times through telemedicine options, including same-day appointments.

Removing the commute also makes telehealth services more readily accessible than in-person treatment for many people.

Increased Privacy

Going to a rehab center or clinic that is in a public place can present a barrier to addiction treatment, especially for people in towns where everyone seems to know each other.

Through telehealth services, clients can access substance abuse assessments, therapy, and other services from the privacy of their homes.

Traditional Telehealth Services For Substance Use Disorder Treatment

Telehealth services have been offered by more than one-quarter of rehab centers throughout America for almost a decade.

Services that were available even before the pandemic are considered traditional telehealth services and include the following.

Internet-Based Assessments

It has become common for rehab facilities to provide drug and alcohol assessments online. These assessments measure the severity of a person’s SUD and help determine their treatment plan.

Online assessments can be completed at people’s convenience, at home, and can reduce the wait time for an initial appointment.

Telephone-Based Individual Therapy

Telemedicine has shown that therapy appointments conducted over the phone are just as beneficial to clients as in-person appointments.

This increases privacy for clients, increases options for therapy, and removes barriers caused by transportation, childcare, or other needs.

Smartphone-Based Telehealth Addiction Recovery Services

Many telehealth services that have become commonplace since the pandemic are viable because of smartphones.

The prevalence of smartphone use means that many people have access to apps and other new capabilities provided by their phones.

Video Conferencing

Video conferencing exploded during the pandemic, making apps like Zoom a household name.

It also allows people receiving substance abuse treatment the opportunity to have virtual face-to-face meetings with their case manager, their therapist, or members of group therapy sessions.

Text-Based Addiction Support

Text-based support for addiction treatment can provide a number of benefits for clients.

Benefits of text-based treatment can include:

  • appointment reminders, which have been shown to reduce missed appointments
  • motivational or inspirational reminders that are personalized
  • craving helplines
  • automated cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • relapse prevention support

Because cell phone use is so ubiquitous, people have the ability to privately receive support in public settings.

Smartphone Apps

Addiction treatment smartphone apps can also be a game changer for people living with an SUD.

Smartphone apps can include such features as:

  • rewards for contingency management therapy
  • GPS tracker that issues an alert when entering an area that is high-risk
  • real-time craving interventions
  • direct connection to support personnel or clinicians

Smartphone apps represent an aspect of addiction treatment that is still emerging.

Limitations Of Telehealth Addiction Treatment

As exciting as the changes to telehealth treatment may be, there are some inherent limitations to these services.

A couple of the most obvious limitations are that virtual residential treatment programs aren’t available, and neither are remote options for medical detox.

The following highlight some additional limitations to virtual treatment.

Initial Assessment And Vital Signs

There are important considerations for initial assessments that can be done in person but are limited or not possible in a telehealth setting.

For example, the initial assessment often includes an assessment of the person’s general health and well-being, which can be limited via video conferencing.

Factors such as lighting and internet connection speed can make it difficult to assess an individual’s mental state and overall wellness.

On a more practical level, it isn’t possible to take vital signs through a video conference call.

Psychosocial Interaction

Group and individual therapy is achievable online but also limited. Video calls can make it difficult to pick up on nonverbal cues, such as pauses, shifts of position, posture, etc.

We intuitively pick up on these cues, so when we see the person we’re talking to but are missing these key pieces of communication, we may feel awkward.

A therapy session is one setting where you want to feel as comfortable as possible, and overcoming feelings of awkwardness can be harder with video conferencing.

Drug Screening And Monitoring

It isn’t possible to do proper drug screenings and drug monitoring without an in-person meeting.

Theoretically, a person can collect their own urine sample and send it to the lab. But there is no way of knowing if the sample came from that person or someone else.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

The restrictions on MAT were loosened during the pandemic, and the current proposal from the Biden-Harris Administration is to keep them that way.

Not requiring people to meet in person with their prescriber for buprenorphine treatment has made this evidence-based treatment more widely accessible.

However, if restrictions are put back in place, in-person visits will be required to initiate MAT.

Telehealth Treatment Moving Forward

Telehealth treatment has some obstacles to overcome, but it remains a viable form of SUD treatment.

Because some challenges to telehealth treatment are insurmountable, due to technological or practical limitations, telehealth treatment will likely move forward as an adjunct to in-person care.

Face-to-face treatment is still the gold standard for addiction care and will likely remain so for many years to come.

But as a means of breaking down treatment barriers and opening access to underserved populations, telemedicine has provided an invaluable resource.

Find Addiction Treatment Today

Are you battling a substance use disorder? You have many options for addiction treatment that you can discover today by calling

For 24/7 Treatment Help Call:
(888) 859-4403

Detox Rehabs