By Erica Land, clinical operations specialist at VirtualMed Staff
Amidst the uncertainty of the past 18 months, telemedicine has emerged as a powerful solution to many of the healthcare challenges we face as a nation. The COVID-19 pandemic heightened demand and uptake for telemedicine – and with the introduction of new legislation to expand access to it, patients have even more opportunities to receive care in ways they never have before. Now, more than ever, we need to prioritize ways to remove barriers and improve access to care for patients everywhere, and technology gives us a path forward.
COVID-19, however, has not been the only driver that has led to the uptake of telemedicine. Well before the pandemic, it was playing a powerful role in improving treatment options for another crisis: the rise of opioid addiction and overdose.
A promising solution to the opioid crisis
You likely know the stats: More than 70,000 Americans died from drug-involved overdoses in 2019 – a 250% increase from two decades ago. Even more alarming, fentanyl overdoses increased from roughly 10,000 deaths in 2015 to nearly 40,000 in 2019. Our country is in crisis, and telemedicine is one of the best tools we have to connect people with addiction to the professionals who can best treat them.
Recent changes in how clinicians treat opioid use disorder (OUD) includes fewer restrictions on the use of buprenorphine and better access to online OUD recovery services. It’s a powerful combination. When an OUD patient leaves a hospital and moves to outpatient care, the use of telemedicine during that transition is shown to drastically improve their recovery because complications patients may face with medication side effects and withdrawal can be quickly and directly addressed.
I have firsthand knowledge of this approach because my father has struggled with addiction for as many years as I can remember. It took a pandemic for him to be discharged from the ED with the support of telepsychiatry, and it’s the first time I can remember feeling hopeful. You can read my story about how telemedicine gave my father a fighting chance.
A solution for mental illness
Beyond treatment for substance abuse and opioid addiction, many populations need access to treatment for pandemic-related mental illness, too. According to research by VirtualMed Staff, a full-service telemedicine company, health system partners experienced surges in psychiatric consults ranging from 38%-105% of their regular volumes throughout the pandemic. The mental health crisis shows no signs of slowing, and the industry is preparing for yet another surge. Telemedicine will be critical to manage the increase in patient volumes.
While telehealth is becoming more accessible in the treatment of mental illness, another barrier remains: stigma. For telehealth to have the greatest impact, we have to change the conversation. One of the best ways to destigmatize treatment for mental health is for patients — and family members of patients — to share their personal struggles and stories. I’m sharing my story in the hopes of starting a conversation around addiction and behavioral health in my own community. Together, we can lead by example and forever change treatment options for millions worldwide.
As we look to the future, one thing is clear – telemedicine will continue to provide greater access to healthcare and improve patient outcomes. From doctors and nurses who are enduring the stress of the ongoing pandemic, to children who have been isolated from friends and teachers, to patients suffering from drug and alcohol dependency and those with anxiety and depression, telemedicine offers a promising solution. Just as technology has changed every aspect of our lives, telemedicine is our best opportunity to improve the future of healthcare in our country.
About the Author:
Erica Land is an award-winning healthcare professional with over 12 years of research, clinical and healthcare experience. Awarded Associate of the Year Award in 2020 for VirtualMed Staff, Erica continues to make an impact on healthcare systems across the U.S. With her passion for telemedicine and drive to improve patient outcomes, she is an advocate for removing barriers that impede access to healthcare for both hospitals and the patients they serve. Erica is committed to ending the stigma around mental health and has made it her mission to help educate communities on the impact telemedicine can have on the country’s deeply-entrenched drug crisis.
VirtualMed Staff is a full-service telemedicine company specializing in psychiatry, neurology, and hospital medicine at hospitals, clinics, and medical groups across America. Headquartered in Alpharetta, Georgia, VirtualMed Staff is part of the Jackson Healthcare® family of companies. For more information, visit www.virtualmedstaff.com.