The state of telehealth, and its role in the fight against opioid use disorder

By | 3 minute read | March 7, 2019

Telehealth is ready to take center stage. Telehealth is in the fight against opioid use disorder. But are consumers and healthcare providers ready to start giving and receiving care via their computers and smartphones, and are private health plans ready to pay for it? Based on recent media reports tracking sentiment toward technology, telehealth is definitely on an upward trend.

This past October, Congress passed a package of bills focused on confronting the nation’s opioid epidemic, collectively known as the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act. The SUPPORT Act contains several statutory changes designed to make substance use disorder treatment more accessible. Among them is a renewed focus on telehealth, which will make it easier for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries to access telehealth services.

Consumers appear to be ready for telehealth to play a bigger role in their lives. A 2016 survey funded by the National Institutes of Health found that between 94 and 99 percent of people who had experienced telehealth services were “very satisfied” with telehealth, while one-third of respondents preferred the telehealth experience to an in-office doctor visit.1 Adding some color to that finding, a separate report by Salesforce found that 60 percent of millennials support the use of telehealth to replace in-office visits.2

Even more encouraging, early studies tracking the effectiveness of telehealth are showing positive outcomes. This past year, the Duke Clinical Research Institute teamed up with a virtual rehabilitation therapy company Reflexion Health to test how its digital rehabilitation platform delivered physical therapy following total knee replacement surgery. According to the study, use of a virtual exercise rehabilitation assistant resulted in a substantial reduction in post-acute costs and re-hospitalizations, while being as effective as traditional physical therapy. The study revealed an average cost savings of $2,745 per patient for those who received virtual physical therapy compared to those who were treated with traditional physical therapy.3

While the SUPPORT Act removed some hurdles to widespread telehealth adoption for the treatment of opioid abuse, the technology still requires buy-in from private health plans. In some states, as detailed in a recent article in Healthcare Finance News, “many providers remain skeptical or even opposed to the growth of telehealth, and some large professional societies have publicly expressed concern over its widespread adoption due to the risk of fragmented care and a lack of adequate data demonstrating effectiveness.” As a result, many payers are restricting payment for services due to concerns about over-utilization without evidence of decreased costs.

That’s what makes investments from insurers such as Anthem a potential harbinger of future growth. This month, American Well announced that it is partnering with Anthem and Samsung Electronics America to bring 24/7 telehealth services to consumers. The latter allows people with an Anthem-affiliated health plan and the latest Samsung Health app on their Samsung Galaxy device to access American Well’s LiveHealth Online to video chat with a provider. Consumers can also use the app to consult with experts in a range of subspecialties.4

Relative to in-person care, telehealth is still in its infancy, but a rapidly growing body of research and anecdotal evidence suggests that it has massive potential. Now that the regulatory complexities have cleared the proverbial deck, providers, health plans, and public health officials will be watching closely to monitor the impact of the technology in the fight against the opioid epidemic. Please see Watson Health Consulting services for more information.

Every other month, the IBM® Watson Health™ – NPR Health Poll surveys approximately 3,000 Americans to gauge attitudes and opinions on a wide range of healthcare issues, including opioids.

Learn more about Telehealth’s impact against the opioid epidemic