In the United States, approximately 11% of adults experience daily pain. Opioids are a class of drugs that include the drug heroin as well as prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and fentanyl. 

Millions of Americans are treated with prescription opioids for acute and  chronic pain (pain lasting longer than 3 months or past the time of normal tissue healing, outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care, and end-of-life care).

Opioid are considered safe if prescribed by a doctor and taken for a short period of time. It is crucial to carefully monitor patients taking prescribed opioids to reduce patient dependence, abuse and overdose related incidents and deaths.

The opioid use disorder is a growing national public health crisis

More than 300,000 Americans have lost their lives from opioid overdoses since 2000. Evidence shows that prescription opioids are a driving factor in the 15-year increase in opioid overdose related deaths. Here are latest opioid crisis statistics:

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine in 2015,

  • Almost 21 million Americans over 12 years old had a substance use disorder  
  • 2 million Americans had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers
  • 591,000 Americans had a substance use disorder involving heroin
  • 122,000 adolescents had an addiction to prescription pain relievers
  • 21,000 adolescents used heroin

Even more alarming are the statistics related to women:

  • Women are more likely to suffer with chronic pain than men
  • Women may become dependent on prescription pain relievers more quickly than men
  • Currently, almost 18 women die everyday of a prescription pain reliever overdose in the U.S.
  • Approximately 48,000 women died of prescription pain reliever overdoses between 1999 and 2010

Opioid prescribing best practices for healthcare providers

Prescription opioids taken by adolescents and young adults nearly doubled from 1994 to 2007. Healthcare providers need to improve the way pain relievers are prescribed. This can be achieved by following clinical guidelines to ensure patients have access to safe and effective chronic pain treatment while reducing misuse, abuse, or overdose from these drugs.

Here are the CDC guidelines for clinicians to discuss with their patients when prescribing opioids:

  • Explain the expected benefits and risks of opioids
  • Emphasize improvement in function as a primary goal even when pain is still present
  • Discuss serious and common side effects of opioids, such as constipation, dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, confusion, physical dependence, and withdrawal symptoms
  • Advise patients not to operate heavy machinery when taking opioids
  • Discuss risks to household members and other individuals if opioids are intentionally or unintentionally shared with others for whom they are not prescribed
  • Discuss the importance of periodic reassessment for therapy goals and opportunities to discontinue opioids  

How healthcare technology can improve the opioid crisis

Combating substance abuse problems necessitates appropriate treatment, in the form of medication, rehabilitation programs, and psychological guidance. The White House released a declaration in October this year allowing for increased utilization of telemedicine services, including remote prescribing of medicines used to treat substance abuse.  

The benefits of telemedicine were highlighted in this government report including:

  1. Increased access to care teams for the patient
  2. Reduced commute times 
  3. Improved patient monitoring and access to patient care plans
  4. Improved response times when emergency issues arise
  5. Improved data capturing and reduced dosage errors with remote electronic prescribing

Beyond tackling the current opioid crisis, it is essential that providers offer a wider selection of treatment options to relieve acute and chronic pain. Telemedicine and digital health, including the use of remote electronic prescriptions, smartphone pain and addiction apps, and wearables might be the key to tightening pain management regulations.

Using a virtual care platform such as HealthTap can help you keep track of your patients’ care plans and remotely prescribe. If you would like to join the HealthTap Virtual Care movement to connect easily with your patients, click below. 

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Simitha Singh Rambiritch

Simitha Singh Rambiritch is a Dentist from South Africa with a Masters in Science in Oral Medicine and Periodontology from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). She was a clinician in the South African public and private sector and an oral medicine and periodontology lecturer for dental and oral hygiene students at the Wits School of Oral Health Sciences for almost 8 years. She also authored several publications in the South African Dental Journal. Simitha was the 2013 recipient of the Margot Lachmann Fellowship, for excellence in cancer research, with a focus on early diagnostic biomarkers in premalignant and autoimmune conditions and their conversion rate to oral cancer. She was invited to present her findings at the 9th International Congress on Autoimmunity in Nice, France.

3 thoughts on “Can Telemedicine Help Combat the Opioid Crisis?

  1. This is not the solution. Did everyone see 60 minutes this weekend? The huge drug distributor mc Kressen appears to be one of the leading providers of opioids in excessive amounts. Why doesn’t the government crack down on them? Is the government in bed with big corporations?

    1. Good Day Benjamin.

      Thank you for your read and very important comments. This is an ongoing battle and we hope that some sort of resolution can happen in the near future.

    2. I agree that telemedicine can be a part of expanding access to management. But it has to be well constructed to avoid being a “me too” prosuct with not integration to EMR’s, HIE’s and care plans

      Look at the Montuno Software telehealth solution with Pain Scored. That may be the solution you are looking for.

      Expanding access to non opioid therapy and Ketamine infusion with VidyaMed clinics is also an option.

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