- The number of opioid overdoses rose by nearly 30 percent in 2020
- Studies show that physicians are more likely to prescribe opioids to patients who are experiencing long-term pain associated with COVID-19
- Telehealth expansion helped make treatment accessible for patients with opioid use disorder, and has helped physicians find best practices to help prevent future overdoses
In 2020, the number of opioid overdoses rose nearly 30 percent and resulted in over 93,000 deaths. The pandemic compounded the epidemic. COVID-19 led to the development of or exacerbated pre-existing respiratory problems in patients who took opioids, which decreased the chances of recovery in those who overdosed. Physicians may have also prescribed opioids to patients who were dealing with pain from “long COVID-19,” or COVID-related health problems that persisted several weeks after being infected with the virus.
Studies predict that the rate of overdoses will continue as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes because of the multifaceted effects of the virus, including job loss, grief, and isolation, that harm patients with substance use disorder. New studies have emerged showing that telehealth played a significant role in helping patients with opioid use disorder (OUD) throughout the pandemic, and that future health tech integration may be necessary to treat patients with OUD.
Health Tech Integration Made Treatment Easier
Studies identified several care management practices that could help treat patients with OUD after the pandemic and reduce the likelihood of an overdose. These include:
Using telehealth. Research from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that telehealth is a great alternative way to treat patients with OUD. Studies show that two of the most common reasons patients do not seek or continue with their drug treatment are fear of disrespect and stigmatization. Telehealth can help remove that barrier and allow patients to speak honestly with their physicians. Physicians also used virtual visits to monitor withdrawal symptoms, evaluate the patient’s social determinants of health, check in with patients as needed, and increase accessibility when the patient needs them.
Being proactive. Besides telehealth, researchers found physicians can use patient data to manage care proactively. Social determinants such as age, gender identity, race, and location play a role in opioid addiction. Physicians who can identify these patients early can adjust their prescriptions and treatment recommendations accordingly.
Aside from telehealth and proactive care management, studies suggest that another way of reducing the risk of OUD in patients is education. Some patients misuse opioids because they did not fully understand their physician’s instructions. The risk rises when patients aren’t fully aware of the potential risks. On average, most opioid users underestimate their own level of risk for overdosing on the drug, which may lead to an accidental overdose.
If a physician determines opioids are an appropriate prescription for the patient’s medical condition, studies recommend the physician discuss the risks of opioid use and abuse with their patients. These types of open conversations may help patients avoid adverse outcomes.