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As the COVID-19 pandemic grows, many Americans are discovering the benefits of telehealth to access medical care in times when in-person visits aren’t practical or safe. Many telehealth providers are ramping up their capabilities to serve patients seeking help with medical concerns, mental health questions, and even substance abuse issues. Research shows that, properly implemented, telehealth can provide benefits in communities where traditional medical visits aren’t available. The Department of Veterans Affairs is one agency making the most of this technology during the pandemic.

As telehealth expands, it’s important to keep in mind the need to ensure that such services don’t create different problems for patients and health care professionals (HCP) alike. We as a society need to be cognizant of one potential side effect of telehealth: the overprescription of antibiotics and opioid pain medication. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every three antibiotic prescriptions is unnecessary. Although prescriptions for opioid pain medications have been steadily declining since 2012, the amount of opioids in morphine milligram equivalents prescribed per person is still around three times higher than it was in 1999.

Over the past several years, I’ve held contracts to conduct research and develop physician and consumer communications on both the overprescription of antibiotics as well as opioid pain medication. And, in the throes of this pandemic, I’m fearful that if not careful with how we use telehealth, these problems could be exacerbated.

The telehealth environment makes it too simple for health care providers—already predisposed to want to help—to offer remedies or prescribe whatever they can to promote healing, take away pain and, in short, make their patients feel better. In conducting in-depth interviews (IDI) and other types of research on both overprescription topics, I’ve heard health care providers describe erring on the side of caution to prescribe medications that their patients don’t necessarily need.

However, my own personal experience is illuminating here. On the few occasions I have had the opportunity to use telehealth, I have been grateful for the chance to reach a doctor, but also mindful of how easy it was to tell and receive a prescription for medication(s) I was seeking. To the extent this experience is matched for other telehealth patients, I can see why the issue of overprescription is worthy of concern.

The bottom line is that we as a nation are fortunate to have access to telehealth in a time when the simple act of seeing an HCP in person could put any of us at further risk for COVID-19. And yet, the risks of overprescription suggest that providers, insurance companies, and the public health community all have roles to play in guarding against any potential downsides of this telehealth boom. If we aren’t attentive to this now, we might create the risk that reacting against the new threat of COVID-19 could result in renewed problems that the community has fought—and are still fighting—so hard to overcome.

I will continue to share opioid misuse insights as shifts occur due to COVID-19. Sign up for more perspective pieces from FMG Experts here. Reach out to our team to continue the conversation and gain additional resources

FMG Expert

Ronne Ostby

Ronne Ostby

Vice President, Communication Research, Strategy, and Outreach

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