The novel coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we approach just about everything.  In healthcare one of the most significant changes has been the movement from face-to-face interaction with healthcare providers to virtual visits using our phones, tablets or desktop computers. 

Telehealth in the treatment of addictions and mental illness has been available for several years, usually as an option available for those unable to travel to their provider due to distance or disability.  The pandemic has caused healthcare providers to modify their work in order to limit exposure of both staff and patients.   At SMA, telehealth utilization has increased more than 3000% since March, as we have seen more than 15,000 people receive services through telehealth.

Given this significant change in the way SMA’s healthcare services are delivered, the research question that inevitably follows regards the relative effectiveness of moving from face to face to virtual services. 

Certainly access is improved for almost everyone. Internet access in SMA’s service area includes 86% of the population in Putnam County and 97-98% of people living in Flagler, St. Johns and Volusia  (www.broadbandnow.com).

Currently, SMA has not undertaken any comparative research on virtual service effectiveness.  However, a handful of providers around the country has begun to evaluate virtual outpatient treatment outcomes. 

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, probably the best known provider of addiction treatment services in the nation, published a study on the topic in September 2020.  Their summary of findings indicated that “Overall, our preliminary findings indicate that virtual Intensive Outpatient services have been as effective as in-person IOP treatment has been.”  Their study found no significant difference between three approaches – in person only, transition (in-person transitioning to virtual) and virtual only.  The reported concluded that “patients in the virtual and transition groups were just as likely to report abstinence at one month as patients who attended in-person IOP treatment.  Similarly, no differences between formats were detected in regard to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) treatment, quality of life (mental and physical health), and in reported psychological well-being or self-efficacy to stay sober.”

The study also looked at 3 month follows after completion of treatment.  “Patients in the virtual and transition groups were just as likely to report abstinence and AA attendance as patients who attended in-person IOP treatment. “ 

This is certainly good news as we move through the pandemic.  We’ve long known that “treatment works”.  We now are receiving encouraging research to support the notion that treatment works whether provide in-person or virtually.