Combating The Rural Opioid Crisis

May 17th, 2017 By InTouch Health

It’s no secret that the number of opioid overdose deaths is reaching epidemic proportions in many rural communities in the U.S. The problem is compounded by the lack of access to psychiatrists and addiction specialists – an imbalance that telehealth is helping to alleviate.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is paying for five pilot telehealth projects in rural parts of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. One is run by Carilion Clinic, a Roanoke, Va.-based health system with 240 practice locations across western Virginia.

In a recent Washington Post story, Carilion-affiliated family physician Dr. Robert Devereaux expressed hope that telehealth can help address some of the root causes of rural opioid addiction: poverty and lack of local specialists.

Devereaux’s practice is in rural Giles County, which last year had two opioid overdose deaths. But the nearest addiction treatment facility is in the next county, and the nearest physician who can prescribe the treatment drug suboxone is 30 miles away. That’s a daunting distance for people of limited means who may not have a car. With the USDA funding, Devereaux’s patients can now be seen remotely by a Carilion psychiatrist in Roanoke. But under current law, suboxone and other addiction treatment medications can only be prescribed face-to-face by a physician licensed by the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Both Carilion and the University of Virginia health system (another recipient of USDA funding) are encouraging rural doctors to get DEA certification – and Carilion’s medical residents are required to obtain it. Meanwhile, the USDA grant has already allowed the University of Virginia system to provide remote mental health and addiction treatment to 11 rural community health systems.

It’s shocking that Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky rank among the top 15 states for opioid overdose deaths, alongside far more populous states like California and New York. But telepsychiatry is helping to level the playing field for rural communities, bringing sorely needed expertise and education.