Treating Substance Abuse with Telehealth

Innovative ideas for how to apply telehealth technology are appearing on a regular basis, and it is no surprise that telemedicine has recently been shown to effectively mitigate substance abuse. Telemedicine is no longer just a mechanism for managing chronic conditions like diabetes or assisting with specialty consultations, now the application of telehealth may have wider societal benefits, allowing communities to change they way they deal with addiction.

In 2014 the Department of Social Services commissioned a pilot program to test the efficacy of telehealth on substance abuse patients in South Dakota. SD has a distinct substance abuse problem, and judges are often forced to send nonviolent drug offenders to jail because of a paucity of rehabilitation programs in the rural, dispersed state. The result is an increasing tax burden and low quality of treatment focused on symptoms and not the causes.

Enter telehealth. The plan is for two grant recipients to devise an architecture to address SD's treatment needs using an effective deployment of telehealth technology, including integrated telephone, video, and IM services to reach substance abusers spread throughout the large state. While we still have to wait to find out the results of this recent study, success is predicted, and it is inspiring to think of how these innovative ideas will improve healthcare going forward.

Tarzana Treatment Centers in Los Angeles has a telehealth program specifically targeting adolescents with substance issues. The program works like any conventional counseling set up, but is held online over a secure connection, and allows parents or friends the option to join in as well. Adolescents are already among the most deft navigators of cyberspace, so the extension of specialized services to this segment is a natural move. Such secure, online counseling has the benefit of being discrete; patients are attracted to the prospect of avoiding stigma associated with in person drug counseling.

In 2012, 20.7 million Americans were estimated to have a substance abuse problem, and yet in the coming years there is predicted to be a deficit of roughly 60,000 doctors. Taken together, these facts prove the need for telehealth solutions to use digital technology to extend and amplify limited resources. Already clinics from Nevada to Baltimore are seeing results in applying these solutions to drug counseling. Having telehealth systems in place puts a scalable response to the addiction problems our country faces.

laurel christensen