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The future of telehealth after the COVID-19 public health emergency

Telehealth treatment related to addiction led to lower odds of overdose—at a time when tens of thousands die from overdose each year, studies found.
The future of telehealth after the COVID-19 public health emergency
Posted at 4:47 PM, May 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-20 16:48:58-04

The Drug Enforcement Agency proposed changes to telehealth, and Americans spoke out by the thousands.

We often question the chances for change when people speak out. Can a movement that starts far from power reach those at its center?

Kelly Dunn is the executive director for clinical treatment at Oklahoma State University.

"It takes a lot to change anything. So, by the time the DEA makes a change, it’s probably been overdue for a while," she said.

Dunn is referring to a last-minute announcement from the DEA holding off on a change that would have rippled through homes far from power and homes handling addiction.

"With addiction care, it's most successful when there's as little obstacle as possible to access that care," Dunn added.

When COVID-19 hit, that need erupted. The DEA used the public health emergency to greatly expand prescribing medication without seeing a patient in person.

SEE MORE: Teledoctors can continue prescribing controlled substances, for now

Two years later, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others found telehealth treatment related to addiction led to lower odds of an overdose—at a time when tens of thousands die from overdose each year. But in February, with the emergency set to expire, the DEA announced it would keep telehealth access for some medications but remove it for others, including buprenorphine, a major treatment for addiction.

"These are life-changing medications for people that they’re no longer going to be able to access," Dunn said when we first met with her.

Sitting with her that day was Alina Messick, a physician’s assistant at Oklahoma State University who provides treatment for rural patients.

She wrote one of the 38,000 public comments on the DEA’s proposal. Two days before the deadline, the DEA announced it would hold off on the new rules for another six months.

Dunn predicts the DEA will likely try to allow easier access in general while regulating treatments with potential for abuse. It’s not quite a victory, but it is a success, Dunn says, for those in need and those who spoke out.

“If anything, it kind of continues to give me hope,” Dunn said. “It’s pretty exciting for people to be active in this and that everyone’s participating in the change they want to see.”


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