Telehealth use in OUD among Medicare beneficiaries was associated with better patient retention and lower medically treated overdose risks, according to a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry on Wednesday.
Federal health care research and policymaking bodies touted the study as validation of telehealth in treating opioid use disorder (OUD).
The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (part of the CDC), the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) analyzed the data of about 176,000 Medicare beneficiaries from September 2018 to February 2021.
The agencies compared two groups of beneficiaries who started treatment for an OUD: one that started treatment before the onset of COVID-19 and the associated telehealth changes and one that started treatment afterward.
The latter group saw higher rates of telehealth services compared to the pre-pandemic group (19.6% compared to 0.6%) and were more likely to receive medication-assisted treatment (12.6% compared to 10.8%), according to a news release from the CDC.
“Strategies to increase access to care and [medications for opioid use disorder (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,” Dr. Christopher Jones, lead author and acting director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC, said in the release.
Since the onset of the pandemic, CMS has tracked a huge expansion in the rates of telehealth utilization across medical specialties. Behavioral health saw some of the largest rates of growth and greatest durability in the use of telehealth.
The study also found that the beneficial outcomes of using telehealth were limited based on race and geographical location. Non-Hispanic black persons and those living in the South were least liked to receive telehealth services. The study pointed to this as an example of inequity in the health system that limits access to care.
Throughout several new initiatives, CMS has emphasized a focus on addressing inequities in health care.
“Emergency authorities to expand use of telehealth and provide flexibilities for MOUD provision during the pandemic were used by Medicare beneficiaries initiating an episode of OUD-related care and were associated with improved retention in care and reduced odds of medically treated overdose,” the study reads. “Strategies to expand provision of MOUD and increase retention in care are urgently needed.”
Federal policymakers have made a handful of changes to Medicare programs when it comes to telehealth and mental health. However, many of the regulations that have allowed telehealth to thrive during the pandemic are temporary, tied to the federal public health emergency.
“We hope this sends a strong signal to policymakers that telehealth can and should be a permanent part of healthcare delivery, to effectively and safely address critical needs of patients and individuals whenever and wherever they need it most,” Kyle Zebley, senior vice president of public policy for The American Telemedicine Association said in a news release.