The U.S. is currently facing a huge opioid epidemic that seems to only be growing worse with time. Nearly 115 people die from opioid-related overdoses every single day in the U.S., which actually makes it the leading cause of death for people under the age of 50. More than 97 million people have used prescription painkillers (like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl) in the last year, either because they were prescribed them by a physician or due to recreational street use. Two million of these people are considered dependent on opioids. If more serious steps aren’t taken to combat this trend, health experts estimate that over 500,000 people could die from opioid overdoses in the next 10 years.

As the nation is learning more about the rising abuse of opioids, the federal government has tried to take some action by pushing through stricter drug enforcement measures. There has also been a call for doctors to write fewer prescriptions for painkillers – thus, preventing opioid addiction before it can even get started. However, experts believe it will take at least a few years before these measures can have any type of true impact. So, what else can be done in the meantime?

It turns out telemedicine options can actually help combat the rising rates of opioid addiction. Several programs are launching around the country that bring together all types of medical professionals (physicians, nurses, social workers, etc.) to help gain important knowledge from addiction specialists and psychiatrists. The ECHO (Extension for Community Health Outcomes) program was established several months ago as part of the Office of Telemedicine/Telehealth at Virginia Commonwealth University’s VCU Health system. This program, funded by grant money from the Virginia Department of Health, works by holding sessions on connected platforms to help medical professionals learn and communicate with each other in a collaborative environment. Each of these sessions allows between 25 and 40 providers to participate in video sessions to get educated about current trends and treatments in the field of addiction treatment.

Dr. Vimal Mishra, the medical director and principal investigator for the program, says, “It’s a fantastic way of delivering health care in a learning environment. This is where the future of public health begins.”

Divan - Doctor and Patient with Laptop

The key to reducing the opioid epidemic could lie within telemedicine.

One of the ways this type of telemedicine can be even more helpful is the fact that providers from rural or remote areas can participate and learn from the video sessions, no matter where they’re located. Providers can be up on the latest treatment options even if they live far from addiction specialists or treatment centers. These under-served rural areas are often where addiction treatment is needed the most.

ECHO focuses on educating providers on various treatment options, including Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT). MAT is a treatment plan that uses opioid treatment programs (OTPs) to combine both behavioral therapy and medications to help treat substance abuse disorders. This type of treatment helps providers view the patient as a whole, instead of treating various elements of the addiction. The use of medications (like methadone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine) work to block the effects of narcotics while reducing or preventing withdrawal symptoms.

Without the use of a program like ECHO, providers in remote areas would either have to learn about new treatment options like MAT through rare clinics held by larger health systems or state health officials. They would often have to convince these parties to travel to rural areas to offer training and education. This means that many areas still aren’t getting the support they need to effectively treat opioid addiction or to help stop the spread of the abuse of these medications.

It seems obvious that these telemedicine programs can be vital in fighting the U.S.’s opioid addiction. More education and communication with specialists would certainly give providers a better chance at treating addiction. Programs like ECHO mean that medical professionals can get access to essential information while fostering a wide community of support for treatment providers. Mishra states, “I feel like I’m learning something not only from the expert who’s sitting beside me, but also from the community. We’re all learning together. This is value-based care.”

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Opioid education programs delivered via telemedicine could play a huge role in decreasing this problem in the U.S.

However, these programs are still facing some uphill battles in terms of wider support and funding. Because these telemedicine options aren’t provider-to-patient care, but are rather a provider-to-provider system, some companies don’t see the immediate financial benefits of setting up the programs. But, on the other hand, the opioid epidemic is creating a huge impact on the U.S. economy. A study from 2016 stated that opioid overdoses, abuse, and dependence have cost the economy around $78.5 billion. However, the White House stated in late 2017 that the opioid epidemic has cost the U.S. closer to an estimated $504 billion, meaning that the crisis is not only having a huge impact on the nation’s health but also a detrimental effect on its economy.

Mishra suggests that the financiers considering supporting programs like ECHO take a different look at the formula. “It’s not a return on investment, but a return on public health,” he says. “It’s not hard money you’re looking for. It’s about how many people you’re treating in the communities, by their own primary care providers, rather than transferring them to other facilities.”

Mishra brings up a valid point with this. If patients are able to stay in their remote towns and still receive medical care from their own providers, they might be more likely to kick their addiction. Having to travel to bigger cities or meet with new specialists can create an environment that is less conducive to recovery for opioid addicts. Bringing the very best treatment options to rural communities could increase the chance that patients are able to stick to their recovery and avoid relapses.

It’s a fact that programs like ECHO can benefit those seeking treatment from addiction by providing medical professionals with updated and accurate information. Imagine how much it would help the country if even more providers were able to offer better treatment options for individuals, regardless of where they live. It’s obvious that more steps need to be taken to help fight the nation’s opioid addiction, and telemedicine just might be the solution to this frightening epidemic.