Ohio Hospitals Use Telehealth to Fight Opioids During Crisis

While Ohio’s stay-at-home order closed non-essential businesses and kept most people indoors, the opioid epidemic did not abate. Stats show drug overdose deaths have remained fairly steady over the past three months.

by Evan MacDonald, Advance Ohio Media / June 1, 2020
Shutterstock/Darwin Brandis

(TNS) — Back in March, Cleveland's University Hospitals was on the verge of rolling out a peer-support program at UH Parma Medical Center, where people recovering from opioid addiction could offer guidance to patients with substance use disorder. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck.

The hospital system suddenly faced a question health care providers across the U.S. have been dealing with throughout the COVID-19 crisis: How do you continue treating the opioid epidemic during a global pandemic?

While Ohio’s stay-at-home order closed non-essential businesses and kept most people indoors, the opioid epidemic did not go away. Statistics show drug overdose deaths have remained fairly steady over the past three months in Cuyahoga County. The medical examiner issued a warning last week after nine people overdosed and died in the first 48 hours after the state government eased coronavirus restrictions.

The dual crises forced UH and Thrive Peer Support of Beachwood to quickly adapt to a new telehealth model, using videoconferencing to assist patients with substance use disorder. UH Parma Medical Center started offering the new Thrive ED program recently, and the early results have been encouraging, said Dr. Jeanne Lackamp, the director of the UH Pain Management Institute.

“A pandemic doesn’t wait for you, and you can’t wait on a pandemic,” Lackamp said. “There is no good justification for postponing or delaying care that can be provided … I think University Hospitals has definitely been proving it can provide excellent care in a creative way.”

The coronavirus pandemic may be increasing the need for programs like Thrive ED. Experts believe prolonged periods of isolation could increase the risk of drug addiction and disrupt access to services for people in recovery.

Thrive ED, like similar peer-support programs, connects patients who come through the emergency room to people in recovery. Other hospitals in Greater Cleveland, including MetroHealth and St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, also offer peer-support programs through their emergency departments.

Many of those ER patients have recently overdosed, so peer supporters listen to them and offer guidance, said Melissa Carter, a Thrive peer supporter who has been in recovery for alcohol and opioid use since 2014.

“We aren’t there to tell people they need to detox and they need to quit, because people told me that for 20 years and I didn’t,” Carter said. “I’m there to listen to them and share my story and my recovery journey with them, to give them the hope that it’s a possibility.”

UH Parma Medical Center, like many other hospitals, restricted visitors when the coronavirus crisis struck. Those restrictions kept Thrive peer supporters out of the hospital, forcing the Thrive ED program to pivot to telehealth.

If an ER patient chooses to speak to a peer supporter, UH will give them a laptop or tablet computer for videoconferencing. The ER staff will notify Thrive, and a peer supporter will be able to have a one-on-one video chat with the patient, Lackamp and Carter said.

Carter, a Parma native who previously worked with the Thrive ED program at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center, said the switch to a telehealth model will also have some benefit. She thinks patients may be more comfortable talking to peer supporters via video, because so many of them routinely use videoconferencing services like Apple’s FaceTime.

“I’m hopeful that the ability to have someone there, like a phone-a-friend, but not in your space while everything else around you seems like chaos … I think that’s actually going to be a good thing,” Carter said.

University Hospitals has previously offered outpatient services and some inpatient services to patients with substance use disorder, but Thrive ED will be the first services offered through a UH emergency department, Lackamp said. The health system also plans to roll out the Thrive ED program at UH Cleveland Medical Center and other other Cuyahoga County facilities sometime in the future.

“We’re really pleased that we’re able to offer this, and we didn’t let the pandemic stop our progress,” Lackamp said. “We couldn’t ignore that it was happening, but we didn’t want to delay offering this service to our patients.”

©2020 Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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