In the 10 to 15 years since the advent of what is now the Opioid epidemic/crisis, medical professionals have seen narcotic pain medication transform from being something that would provide comfort to patients; to becoming one of the country’s leading causes of death.
News headlines began surfacing nationally over the last two years in print, on the radio, and on television. On August 8th, 2017 Michelle Canty reported that, “The number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths jumped from 225 deaths in 2015 to 622 deaths in 2016, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s Fatal Drug Overdose Quarterly Report.” A September 6th 2017 report by Clarice Silber stated, “A new state report shows Arizona saw 280 suspected opioid deaths over a little more than two months this summer”. In fact, two of the largest music legends of our time: Prince and Michael Jackson, lost their lives due to opioid overdoses. The National news reports chronicled startling situations of children being found in cars with parents who had overdosed. More and more reports were emerging. The situation finally caught the attention of the larger television networks and 60 minutes launched an investigative report on the topic. At the end of 2015, one episode addressed the use and abuse of opioid pain medication. Parents were interviewed about their children’s use of narcotics and heroin. It was an eye-opening show that brought to light how widespread this issue really is. Based on the news reports, every sector of the American population is being affected by this crisis; from the poor, to the middle class, to millionaire celebrities. One thing is certain, addiction and this crisis does not discriminate.
In an article for the Boston Globe, Matt Rocheleau used 8 diagrams to explain the opioid epidemic. From the map of the US, it was evident that this is a situation affecting every state. In this article, the author notes that an increase in prescription of narcotic pain medication is directly proportional to an increase in opioid related deaths. Now that this issue has gained the attention of the public, and the government; slowly different entities including the government and health care agencies are working towards improving the situation. In fact, over the past week I have heard at least two different advertisements for treatment or recovery options. While it is notable that there are efforts being made, it should also be noted that this issue will not be resolved quickly. In fact, Blau (2017) in writing for Stat, quoted Robert Valuck as stating, “It took us about 30 years to get into this mess, I don’t think we’re going to get out of it in two or three.”
Given the magnitude of this crisis, it will be important to have as many appropriate resources as possible to ensure the best outcomes. Currently, emergency workers, hospital workers, and those involved in addiction recovery are seeing the majority of those affected. As we work together to combat this crisis, it will be necessary for insurance companies, health care providers including mental health providers, and other support staff to be available to not only patients but their families. Telehealth can be leveraged to increase the impact of healthcare workers throughout the country, and across specialties to give the needed care to those affected.
Telehealth and the opioid epidemic
Telehealth encompasses many different tools including telephones, mobile devices, and computers to treat, record, and manage healthcare. The tools available can be used by healthcare providers in the field, in the event they need to record a situation, and if they need additional assistance or a specialist to assist. Telehealth can also provide remote assistance especially for behavioral health situations, and including therapy or counseling.
The highest incidence of opioid related deaths are occurring in rural areas. This is evident in the map indicated in Rocheleau’s report as well as the numerous newspaper reports which cite increased fatalities in states like Tennessee, Arizona, and Virginia. Telehealth is a safe option for both providers and patients as neither has to leave their home or office. It’s cost effective and given that these services can be provided from any part of the country; there is the possibility of having providers on call 24hrs a day, 7 days a week. While the crisis is not expected to be resolved very quickly, telehealth may prove to be a game changer; and may allow for certain procedures and processes to occur at a faster rate than expected. If the healthcare industry integrates telehealth into existing treatment plans, there is the possibility for better outcomes, earlier than expected.