State-level policies may have boosted the number of substance use disorder (SUD) treatment facilities offering telehealth services.
That’s according to new research by the RAND Corporation and Georgia State University. Researchers found that telehealth usage in SUD treatment facilities skyrocketed in recent years, jumping from 18% in 2019 to 79% in 2022.
This comes after the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically increased telehealth usage in the behavioral health field, a trend that is not slowing down.
At least some of that increase is due to state policies allowing telehealth options for SUD treatment sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the outbreak, federal law permitted states to greenlight telehealth services for SUD treatment only on a limited basis. In 2020, federal regulations allowed audio-only SUD treatment options for the first time, loosening requirements around treatment options in a bid to slow the transmission of the COVID-19 virus and prevent hospital overcrowding.
Several states took full advantage of the more flexible regulations and allowed audio-only treatments as well as video.
Using a national database of outpatient licensed SUD treatment facilities between 2019 and 2022, the study’s researchers found that state telehealth policies are likely a significant driver in the number of facilities offering telehealth.
The adoption of state policies friendly to audio-only SUD treatment also increased the likelihood that a facility would offer telehealth options. Still, the increase in telehealth offerings only came about two years after states passed these new policies, demonstrating that facilities did not immediately jump on the audio-only bandwagon.
The researchers found that policies permitting audio-only options were most likely to be adopted in areas of the country with more limited broadband access. The researchers suggested that this trend is due to rural communities’ tendency to have limited access to the type of broadband infrastructure that makes video-based telehealth possible.
Among the study’s limitations was the researcher’s inability to track the usage of telehealth options for SUD treatment. No database exists for how often telehealth is utilized for SUD treatment, the researchers said, leaving the study to focus only on the availability of telehealth options rather than its frequency of use.
The study sparks opportunities for future research on telehealth options for SUD treatment. Among other topics, researchers suggested that further work could be done to analyze facilities that offer opioid use disorder (OUD) treatment.