Decades after it began, the opioid epidemic is still affecting communities across the United States. Nationally, overdose deaths fell slightly last year for the first time since the 1990s, but some states saw increases, particularly with illicit synthetic opioids like fentanyl, cocaine and stimulants like meth. And while the opioid epidemic is still and will remain a challenge, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought a host of new challenges. According to an article recently published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, there will likely be short and long term implications for mental health and substance use. While we will not know the pandemic’s full effect for a while, experts would agree that there will be a higher need for behavioral health services because of new barriers for those in need. We need to be collectively prepared to address the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and ensure we continue to improve access to treatment for those in need. Building a better substance use and mental health treatment infrastructure is a step in the right direction.
As a critical care physician tending to overdose patients, I’ve noticed that more often than not, patients with behavioral health challenges, if not life-threatening, are quickly discharged and sent home without having their underlying behavioral health issues addressed. When this happens, it’s because clinicians simply don’t know how to address or identify potential behavioral health issues – they only treat the acute medical condition at hand. States are implementing programs that allow comprehensive data sharing and prescription drug monitoring support. But to really improve patients’ chances of recovery, medical clinicians particularly need education and access to better tools to help their patients access treatment for their underlying behavioral health conditions.
Improving access to treatment with technology
As we think about the behavioral health referral process as it is today, significant barriers remain. The screening and assessment process is often redundant and not standardized, and referrals require extensive manual search work on the part of time-pressed providers. It can be a huge challenge for physicians and other clinical staff to see if treatment centers have available inpatient beds or outpatient appointment slots for their patients – especially since availability is always changing. And, when you compound that with a potential increase in the number of patients seeking treatment after the pandemic, the problem only worsens.
In order to build a better substance use disorder and mental health treatment infrastructure, clinicians need access to a provider-facing platform that can facilitate the rapid referral and placement of behavioral health patients into needed treatment, with special emphasis on the appropriateness of the referral. Better coordination technology provides the ability for patients to receive faster entry into a treatment facility. The result is a higher likelihood that they will complete treatment. In addition, we need to give patients the same access to tools and resources so they can search for and receive quality and evidence-based treatment on their own.
While solving the opioid epidemic is a long-lead mission, now compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, we can continue to make progress by implementing the right technological tools to help address underlying issues associated with behavioral health. Quick and digital access to quality treatment providers, real-time capacity data, decision support regarding the appropriate type of treatment, referral tracking and education can help people access the right treatment, especially during this time of uncertainty, and truly make an impact. During and after this pandemic, there may be an increase in the number of people who are in need of behavioral health services. The ability to provide this timely care is crucial and will be a priority moving forward.
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