How the pandemic led to the rise of virtual rehabilitation

  • In the United States, approximately 20 million adults live with a substance use disorder. About 4.2 million receive aid in any given year.
  • Telehealth treatments have been on the increase since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Patients living with addictions of all kinds can access recovery treatment and counseling in the privacy of their own homes.

The global pandemic has brought about a major shift in medical care, with more doctors and patients turning to telemedicine for treatment of elective illnesses.

Over the past 18 months, telemedicine has been used for much more than just consultations with the primary care physician, it is now used to help with drug addiction treatment through virtual rehabs.

When you hear the term “rehabilitation,” you can imagine clinics where people with addictions go to withdraw from triggers and focus their energy on 24/7 care and recovery.

But with the rise of telemedicine came the introduction of telehealth centers that specifically focus on drug addiction.

With virtual drug rehabs, patients living with addiction connect to secure platforms to access their treatment, therapists, group sessions, and other types of recovery treatment, all within the comfort of their home.

About 20 million people over 12 years old in the United States have a substance use disorder, according to a 2019 investigation by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. About 4.2 million people receive assistance in any given year.

“Teletherapy, telehealth and other methods of treating drug addiction by virtual means have been very effective, and much of the effectiveness of this method has been demonstrated during the pandemic,” explained Dr Lawrence Weinstein, Chief Medical Officer of the American Addiction Centers.

“Virtual treatment, as expected when the factors of time and distance are eliminated, increases the reach and availability of addiction services for those who may have difficulty accessing them – such as those residing in rural areas,” who have increasing levels of methamphetamine, opioids and alcohol dependence.

For many people living with addiction, virtual treatment for substance use disorders can be a welcome change of pace from other types of intensive in-person treatment.

However, other people may wonder: can virtual rehabilitation really work and what exactly is it?

The COVID-19 pandemic has boosted demand for telehealth in 2020, but experts say telehealth will likely become a permanent fixture in the tech and healthcare landscape.

In fact, global venture capital funding for digital health companies has hit an all-time high $ 15 billion in the first half of 2021, according to a report from Mercom Capital Group.

“Research on the use of telehealth conducted during the pandemic showed that there was a 1,400% increase in addiction care in telehealth,” Weinstein said.

In addition, a survey found that 81% of addiction treatment providers in California said telemedicine use had increased since stay-at-home orders, and 78% said telemedicine had moderately or completely eliminated barriers to treatment. “

One of the largest virtual rehabilitation companies is Roche Lion Salvage. Licensed in 47 states, they have provided private treatment to thousands of people using video conferencing technology.

Now, other virtual rehabilitations are appearing. The new start-up Quit Genius recently raised $ 64 million for his telehealth treatment of addiction.

Although each program is different, the concept remains the same. People living with addiction can access recovery treatment and counseling in the privacy of their own home.

Lionrock, for example, begins treatment with a thorough assessment, which is performed by the client’s primary advisor. These counselors are licensed psychotherapists at master’s and doctoral level.

Counselors gain an understanding of each client’s situation through assessment. Once the concerns and issues are resolved, the advisor and client work together to develop specific goals.

This assessment helps the psychotherapist make a diagnosis that will guide the treatment plan.

“Depending on all of this, a client can start treatment at the intensive ambulatory care (IOP) level and 6-8 weeks later move on to ambulatory care, spending 12-14 weeks in total on this recovery phase,” explained Pierre loeb, co-founder of Lionrock.

“At the IOP level of care, clients meet in group sessions three times a week, each session lasting 3 hours. They meet with their senior advisor once a week in one-on-one sessions, during which they note progress against treatment plan goals and work on issues more appropriate for individual sessions than for group sessions.

Titus Gardner, a current client of the Lionrock program, shared his experience on Instagram to help people who may be reluctant about virtual rehabilitation.

“I was admitted to the Intensive Online Outpatient Treatment Program, which was 100% virtual via Zoom video conferencing,” Gardner said. “This included my group and individual therapy sessions. ”

Gardner said the program required 44 hours per month for 12 weeks. Her sessions took place 3 days a week, with a one-hour session with her therapist on Saturday.

After this phase, Lionrock recommends that clients continue with mutual support groups, be it the Lionrock community format or more traditional formats like the 12-step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous.

“Substance use disorders are chronic disorders and while the first phase of recovery – treatment – is a great way to start building a life in recovery, recovery is a way of life that greatly benefits. continued support, ”said Loeb.

External experts claim that virtual detox cures can be a useful supplement to treat addiction.

“The answer is yes. They can work. I’ve seen them help, and I know they work,” said Dr Scott Krakower, psychiatrist at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New York.

“It offers many advantages, especially for people who are afraid to start [inpatient programs] and mingle with other people. People who worry about stigma or want things to stay more anonymous feel better than ever after virtual rehabilitation. “

Krakower pointed out that for some people, virtual rehabilitation will not be as helpful as inpatient treatment. He explained that the lack of in-person experience can make virtual rehabilitation feel like it is missing pieces of the puzzle – that it may not be the same experience without the group setting.

Weinstein said the pandemic has revealed how much can be done by trying new ways to approach drug treatment.

“The past year has shown that changing some guidelines, regulatory requirements and other necessary interventions can allow more people with substance abuse to get the help they need,” Weinstein said.

“While the parameters of virtual drug treatment have yet to be revised, the pandemic has shown it to be a viable and effective method of delivering treatment.”

One of the most glaring differences between telehealth rehabilitation and inpatient rehabilitation is the lack of 24/7 monitoring, which can be helpful for some clients but deterrent for others.

How do virtual rehabs ensure patient accountability and maximize success, without having the patient under surveillance in a controlled environment?

Loeb says that whether in a hospital setting or via virtual treatment, success is highly dependent on each individual and they must be engaged in all aspects of treatment. He added that they use certain tests when treating people for substance use.

“About a decade ago, we created processes to hold clients accountable for abstinence, which is the goal, through the use of oral swab tests, which are performed at random by clients videoconferencing with their advisors, ”Loeb said.

“By social convention, we cannot watch clients perform urine tests, so we have developed processes that ensure the integrity of tests that use oral swabs, rather than urine.”

Twelve-step programs and treatment for substance use disorders are different things, although they can complement each other.

“Participation in a 12-step program does not include professionally-led therapy sessions, assessments, diagnoses, treatment plans or treatment protocols such as CBT, DBT or motivational interview or drug-assisted treatment medications, ”Loeb said.

“Professional [substance use disorder] Treatment offers people seeking a life in recovery a deep understanding of their unique challenges and a rich set of tools to manage them.

Telehealth can offer additional levels of confidentiality and flexibility, which may attract some people to treatment, especially if it is early in the progression of addiction.

“As with any health problem, early intervention produces better results,” Loeb said.


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