Friday, January 20, 2023

Telehealth Options May Boost Number of Veterans Who Begin Treatment for Substance Use

Telehealth options may help increase the likelihood that veterans with substance use disorder (SUD) will initiate and stay in treatment, a study in the American Journal on Addictions has found. The study compared treatment initiation and retention among veterans with SUD who received telehealth referrals during the COVID-19 pandemic with that of veterans who were only referred for in-person treatment before the pandemic lockdowns began.

“Extending telehealth services as a treatment option may begin to address structural barriers to SUD care, particularly regarding the initiation in treatment among patients with SUD,” wrote Rebecca E. Sistad, Ph.D., of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) Boston Healthcare System and colleagues.

The researchers analyzed electronic health record data from 373 veterans between 21 and 87 years old who were referred to an outpatient alcohol and substance treatment clinic at a VA hospital. Among the veterans, 227 were referred to in-person treatment before the pandemic began and 146 were referred to telehealth treatment during the pandemic. Roughly 95% of the patients were male and roughly 87% of the patients were White.

The researchers found that approximately 58% of patients who received a referral for telehealth initiated SUD treatment, compared with just over 36% of those who received a referral for in-person treatment. After adjusting for differences in marital status, employment, and psychiatric disorder diagnoses between the groups, the researchers found that the odds of initiating treatment were 2.6 times greater when patients were referred for a telehealth appointment.

“Increasing the odds of attending just the first appointment is significant because patients were able to learn about services available and providers could link them to needed resources,” Sistad and colleagues wrote. “In addition to understanding and increasing awareness of treatment options, patients may also benefit from motivational interviewing and develop insight into their needs and strengths, to potentially increase motivation and promote treatment engagement.”

The researchers also examined the number of sessions the patients attended for four months after their first treatment session. Although the number of treatment sessions declined each month among both groups, they declined more among patients who had received in-person treatment. By the fourth month, the average number of sessions attended was significantly lower for patients who received in-person treatment compared with those who received telehealth treatment.

“Our findings add to the current literature by providing some evidence that offering the delivery of individual and group SUD treatment via telehealth may promote treatment retention and, potentially, a higher rate of attendance over time,” the researchers wrote.

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Telehealth Options for Treating Patients With SUD Expand.”

(Image: iStock/Sinenkiy)

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