From the Journals

Telehealth services tied to a major reduction in opioid overdose deaths



Expansions in telehealth services and increased use of medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) were associated with significant decreases in fatal drug overdoses during the pandemic, a new study of Medicare beneficiaries shows.

Telehealth services for opioid use disorder (OUD) were used far more often during the pandemic than before COVID-19, and those who used them were 33% less likely to die of a drug overdose.

Investigators also found a significant increase in MOUD use during the pandemic. Fatal drug overdoses were 59% less likely among individuals who received MOUD from an opioid treatment program and 38% less likely among those treated with buprenorphine in an office-based setting.

The results come as policymakers are preparing for the end of the public health emergency that prompted the expansion of OUD-related telehealth and MOUD prescribing and are deciding whether to make those expansions permanent.

“The expansion of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have had positive effects on patients receiving MOUD, improved retention among patients who received MOUD, and lowered risks for both nonfatal and fatal overdose,” lead investigator Christopher M. Jones, PharmD, DrPH, director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia, told this news organization. “Our results suggest that telehealth is a valuable tool in the toolbox for expanding access to and improving retention on MOUD.”

The findings were published online in JAMA Psychiatry.

Increase in treatment

The study included 105,162 Medicare beneficiaries who began OUD treatment between March and August in 2019 (prepandemic cohort; 67.6%

aged 45-74 years), and 70,479 who began treatment between March and August of 2020 (pandemic cohort; 66.3% aged 45-74 years).

Participants had not received OUD treatment in the 6 months leading up to study enrollment and were followed for 6 months after treatment began.

Significantly more study participants received OUD-related telehealth services during the pandemic than prior to 2019 (19.6% vs. 0.6%; P < .001). Receipt of MOUD was also significantly higher in the pandemic cohort (12.6% vs. 10.8%; P < .001).

The rate of drug overdose deaths was higher in the pandemic cohort (5.1 deaths vs. 3.7 deaths per 1,000 beneficiaries; P < .001). But the percentage of deaths from drug overdoses did not differ between groups (4.8% in the prepandemic cohort vs. 5.1% in the pandemic cohort; P = .49).

In the pandemic cohort, fatal drug overdoses were 33% less likely among those who received OUD-related telehealth services (adjusted odds ratio, 0.67; 95% confidence interval, 0.48-0.92); 59% less likely among those who received MOUD from opioid treatment programs (aOR, 0.41; 95% CI, 0.25-0.68), and 38% less likely among those who received buprenorphine in office-based settings (aOR, 0.62; 95% CI, 0.43-0.91).

Risk of fatal overdose was significantly lower among women and those aged 65 years and older. There were no significant differences in risk based on urban or rural residency or on ethnicity.

“Against the backdrop of a highly potent illicit drug supply driven by illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogues and historically large increases in overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, MOUD was still highly effective at reducing risk for fatal overdose,” Dr. Jones said.

While the use of buprenorphine in office-based settings was associated with a decreased risk of overdose death, use of extended-release naltrexone was not.

“Prior research has demonstrated the effectiveness of extended-release naltrexone in the treatment of opioid use disorder,” Dr. Jones said. “However, research has also shown that patients have challenges getting started, or inducted, on extended-release naltrexone.”

An earlier study by Dr. Jones and colleagues showed that rates of retention were lower with extended-release naltrexone, compared with buprenorphine in office-based settings or MOUD from opioid treatment programs.

The new study included only a small number of individuals who were receiving extended-release naltrexone, which may have influenced the findings. In addition, challenges with induction and retention may be driving the results, Dr. Jones noted.

“Efforts to improve induction and retention with extended-release naltrexone are important areas for future research and clinical practice,” he added.


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