COLORADO SPRINGS — A national study found that increased use of telehealth services for Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) during the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the risk of overdose.

According to the study, individuals also stayed in treatment longer for OUD with the expansion of telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic than those who sought treatment before the start of the pandemic.

Researchers analyzed data among 175,778 Medicare beneficiaries for three years (September 2018 to February 2021). The analysis examined the receipt of telehealth services, medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) and medically treated overdoses among individuals prior to the pandemic compared to those during the pandemic.

“Strategies to increase access to care and MOUD receipt and retention are urgently needed, and the results of this study add to the growing research documenting the benefits of expanding the use of telehealth services for people with OUD,” said lead author Christopher M. Jones, Pharm.D., Dr.P.H., acting director of the NCIPC at the CDC.

The study published in JAMA Psychiatry was a collaborative effort led by researchers from multiple national agencies which include: the CDC, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

Key findings from the study:

  • Data were analyzed from two groups of Medicare beneficiaries: one group initiated OUD-related care before the COVID-19 pandemic and one initiated care during the COVID-19 pandemic. The data found that those in the COVID-19 pandemic group were more likely to receive OUD-related telehealth services compared to the pre-pandemic group (19.6% compared to 0.6%) and were more likely to receive MOUD (12.6% compared to 10.8%).
  • Among the COVID-19 pandemic group, receipt of OUD-related telehealth services was associated with significantly better MOUD treatment retention and lower risk of medically treated overdose compared to those not receiving OUD-related telehealth services.

“The expansion of telehealth services… has helped to address barriers to accessing medical care for addiction throughout the country that have long existed,” said Wilson Compton, M.D., M.P.E, deputy director of NIDA and senior author of the study. “Telehealth is a valuable service and when coupled with medications for opioid use disorder can be lifesaving. This study adds to the evidence showing that expanded access to these services could have a longer-term positive impact if continued.”

The study also determined some groups were less likely to receive telehealth services, including non-Hispanic black persons and those living in the South. These outcomes underscore the need for future efforts to focus on eliminating underlying inequities in access to care and services.

“The findings showed that telehealth improved the receipt and retention of MOUD, suggesting that this method of healthcare delivery may address common barriers to OUD-related treatment such as transportation and perceived stigma associated with OUD,” said lead analyst Carla Shoff, Ph.D., social science research analyst at CMS.

The newfound data serves as a supportive resource towards maintaining access to telehealth services for patients with OUD as it demonstrates that Medicare beneficiaries and providers used the new flexibilities of telehealth services for MOUD treatment receipt, retention and risk for medically treated overdose. 

Find Treatment for Substance Use Disorder, including OUD

If you or someone close to youneeds help for a substance use disorder, talk to your doctor or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP or go to SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services  

Additional Resources: 

If you have questions about any medicines, call the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Poison Help Hotline at 1-800-222-1222

About the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): NIDA is a component of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIDA supports research on the impacts of drug use and addiction. The Institute carries out a large variety of programs to inform policy, improve practice, and advance addiction science.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases.

About the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS): CMS provides health coverage to nearly 150 million people through Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Health Insurance Marketplace. A component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CMS serves the public as a trusted partner and steward, dedicated to advancing health equity, expanding coverage and improving health outcomes.