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Telemedicine could be effective weapon in war on opioid addiction in rural Michigan

Thomas Hawk
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When President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, he offered some ideas for tackling this national emergency. He didn't offer specific plans or funding for implementation, however.

One of those ideas was telemedicine, which might be especially helpful where America's opioid crisis is at its worst: rural areas.

Jamey Lister, an assistant professor of social work at Wayne State University, joined Stateside to discuss the future of telemedicine and its potential to serve rural populations.

Listen to the full conversation above, or read highlights below.

What is telemedicine?

“Telemedicine is a broad term that reflects the ability to bring patients in using video conferencing. You might use Skype or different web-based platforms so that a physician or other healthcare providers can connect with a patient that might live in rural or remote areas away from the clinic or hospital setting.”

“You can use telemedicine to connect with cardiologists in remote areas. You can use telemedicine to do psychological consults, they’ll call it telepsych. There really isn’t any condition that you couldn’t potentially apply it to.”

What barriers do rural residents fighting addiction face in receiving treatment and care?

“The distance is big. Mainly it’s big because of the transportation problems. So in terms of the time, reliable access to their own personal car, you’re not going to have bus routes that will connect you to the clinic.”

“Beyond that, I think that privacy concerns are pretty big in the rural community, where, if you are traveling to go to a clinic for a healthcare problem and specifically a substance use problem — and it’s a small community — it’s possible that more people are able to talk about that problem, to know that you have it. So those concerns are maybe a bit greater than in an urban or suburban setting.”

“Even though it is an addiction and a disease as most of us know in the addiction-science research, that view hasn’t necessarily trickled down to the community where people view it without stigma.”

Does telemedicine work?

“There’s some promising results out of Ontario. There was a group that used telemedicine to do treatment for opioid problems. Now, it wasn’t a randomized trial where you could control for all the differences, but they kind of let people select how often they would go to sessions in person versus by telehealth. And the group that had a greater percentage of their sessions via telemedicine actually stayed in treatment longer, so they did better in that study. The more you use telemedicine, the better it was in terms of your ability to not have an early dropout of treatment.”   

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