Telemedicine: A Unique Opportunity to Combat Addiction
“I am asking for your help to solve an urgent health crisis facing America: the opioid epidemic.”
Dr. Vivek Murthy, 19th Surgeon General of the U.S.
Earlier this year, these words were included in a letter addressed to every physician in the country as part of an initiative by the Surgeon General’s office to combat a rampant opioid addiction and overdose epidemic in the United States. Prescription painkillers contributed to more than 165,000 deaths from 1999 to 2014, and in 2012 alone almost 260 million prescriptions for narcotics such as Vicodin or Oxycodone were written by clinicians. These drugs, once highly marketed in the 1990s by physicians backed by powerful pharmaceutical companies, have paved the way for the development of increasingly dangerous addictive behavior.
Exacerbated by a recognized nationwide physician shortage, health professionals and policymakers have united across the country in their efforts to contest the growing epidemic and have additionally begun to utilize telemedicine. Five pilot projects in southwest Virginia were initiated by the federal government this summer to specifically target rural areas highly impacted by the crisis. With 4.6% of state inhabitants cited for abuse of opioid painkillers in 2015, this vulnerable population lacks proper access to psychiatric care. By connecting rural clinics to health professionals in high-need regions, telemedicine helps to lift some responsibility from the shoulders of local providers. Some regulatory hurdles still remain, such as a requisite in-person evaluation prior to prescription of narcotics, as well as the cost associated with bringing telemedicine to rural areas.
Never before in our nation’s history has the Office of the Surgeon General individually reached out to every physician in the country to address a nationwide crisis of any kind. A looming physician scarcity and increasing overdose rates demand that substantial resources be allocated towards combating this problem, and telemedicine could very well provide some of that much-needed relief.