COVID Moved the World Online - Can Drug Rehab Move Online, Too?

Written by Modern Recovery Editorial Team

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COVID-19 couldn’t have had a greater, more profound impact on our world, our social interactions, and our way of fundamentally living on a daily basis, if it had turned up as a gigantic meteorite instead – the size of which presumably last seen by dinosaurs.

The swift arrival of COVID-19 (or SARS-CoV-2, a specific type of coronavirus, to be medically exact) into the daily lives of the U.S. population has resulted in a host of disruptive social and economic changes that has fundamentally altered everything that we once took for granted.

Simple activities like shopping for our groceries, meeting up with our families and friends, looking after our children, commuting to work, and even how we work once we have arrived, are just not the same anymore. More and more of these seemingly normal ways of living have now moved online – into a safe, socially-distanced, yet challenging environment.

Like the introduction of the mobile phone, we’ve all gone “hands-free.”

Socially, our mental wellbeing during the pandemic is struggling to cope, as recent statistics demonstrate. For example, recent data from the Household Pulse Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, shows mental health issues have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 36.5% of U.S. adults in June, 2020 reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from 11.0% in 2019. That’s a big jump, to put it mildly.

Economically, the rise in unemployment, the number of staff being terminated or “furloughed,” and the number of businesses that have foreclosed or who are just only holding on to their existence – all of these factors have damaged our way of earning money, of providing for loved ones, and, ultimately, again, our mental wellbeing.

More and more people are turning to substances (drugs or alcohol) to cope with their current state of mind, in a desperate attempt to “self-medicate” these feelings of anxiousness or depression. The truth of this, sadly, will be seen in the coming years – with a rise in the rates of addiction nationally.

Yet the real need for greater access and affordability in the treatment of substance addiction right now, regardless of what the future holds, is immense. Addiction treatment facilities (traditional drug rehabs) are businesses like any other, and have been hit as hard as anyone else, too, with many foreclosed or unable to admit patients as before.

It begs the question…

If our world is moving more and more online, with COVID-19 the undeniable catalyst for this, should traditional addiction treatment follow suit? Can “drug rehab” really move online? The answer appears to be “Yes.”

Telemedicine: The Rise in Online Healthcare

Telemedicine” – the term used most commonly to describe online or virtual healthcare – is nothing new. In many parts of the world, it has become standard practice as an effective and economical way for physicians to reach out to patients who are unable to accept and make appointments in-person; for example, where patients are geographically disadvantaged by living in remote regions, eg. the Australian Outback. 

However, just as COVID-19 has been the catalyst for increasing the number of online supermarket orders for the weekly groceries, it has also been the catalyst for the increasing the real need of telemedicine – virtual appointments where patients can speak directly and confidentially with their family physician. And, of course, it hasn’t stopped there.

Clearly, the use of telemedicine during this pandemic has been proven to be an effective solution for standard medical appointments where patients cannot attend, or do not need to attend, as they have done previously – in-person. However, there are many branches of healthcare, and many medical conditions that do require “hands-on” treatment.

Let’s face it – you can’t plaster-cast a broken leg down a modern fiber optic cable, however state-of-the-art it may be.

The real test for its effectiveness in treating chronic medical conditions, such as addiction (substance use disorders), has yet to be seen, as up-to-date research data is exceptionally limited, and, to put simply, the results aren’t in yet. However, in terms of treating mental health disorders, the necessary peer-reviewed research on the effectiveness of telemedicine has thankfully already been done.

Can “Online Rehab” Be an Effective Addiction Treatment?

In 2016, the Department of Clinical Health Psychology at the University of Colorado in Denver carried out a systematic review of the available published literature on “telepsychiatry” – the online assessment and treatment of patients with psychiatric disorders and symptoms.

To qualify to be part of this review, the previous studies to be included had to meet certain criteria, namely:

  • To be published in a peer-reviewed journal after the year 2000
  • To be written in English
  • To have used video-conferencing technology for the provision of mental health assessment or treatment services, and 
  • To have used an adequately-powered “randomized controlled trial design”* in the case of treatment outcome studies (*you don’t really need to know what this means, as most studies are conducted this way)

Now, to the all-important results of this specialized telemedicine review.

Overall, both the patients and the healthcare providers were generally satisfied with the telepsychiatry services given. The providers, however, tended to express more concerns about the potentially adverse effects of telepsychiatry on therapeutic rapport. The patients, on the other hand, were less likely to agree this method impaired rapport with their provider. 

The evidence collated by the university’s Department of Clinical Health Psychology, when taken as a whole, demonstrates that telepsychiatry is undoubtedly comparable to face-to-face services in terms of reliability of clinical assessments and treatment outcomes. Not only is this the case, but another primary consideration – cost-effectiveness (a factor that always seems to be lurking about somewhere) – was found to be greater with telepsychiatry.

Obviously, the final review report stated the legal concerns about a potential loss of confidentiality and the limited capacity to respond to psychiatric emergencies. However, the research had uncovered no published reports whatever of these adverse events in this review of telepsychiatry studies.

The Advantages & Benefits of Online Addiction Treatment

Before looking at the clear advantages and benefits of online addiction treatment, it may be pertinent to firstly discuss the reasons why drug addicts and alcoholics who wish to get clean and sober never actually make it into a traditional rehab facility in the first place. They are a number of mitigating factors for this, which can include:

  • Shame & Stigmatization: Among the obvious reasons is shame, social stigmatization, and guilt. Many addicts feel that they deserve, in some way, to be an addict, that there is something fundamentally wrong or bad about them. Of course, although it is common to feel this way, this is ridiculous. First and foremost, addiction is a disease – a “chronic, relapsing brain disorder,” to give it a more precise medical definition.

However, these feelings and presumptions can be enough to deter people from getting the professional help they need. Seeking that help is always the first step in the recovery process, and there is no absolutely no shame in that.

  • Financial Problems: Many addicts have been left with severe financial problems because of their substance abuse. In fact, the majority will have emptied their bank accounts to pay for a fix or a bottle. A knock-on effect of this can be not keeping health insurance payments up-to-date, therefore, ruling out that rehab payment option.
  • Accessibility & Commitment: The most common factor for not attending treatment is one of accessibility and commitment. Many people simply cannot afford to take 30-90 days away from their work, their children or other dependents, or their other responsibilities. Taking the “I can’t leave work” example, if a drug addict or alcoholic still has a job, the chances are their lower performance has been noted, and possibly has already been warned against in writing.

Do you see where we are going with this? Exactly. These factors are either totally negated, or at least largely tempered, by choosing, and then attending an online addiction treatment program.

Online addiction treatment and therapy programs can provide individuals with easily accessible, more affordable and more time-efficient choices – all without the need to attend a traditional rehab facility. All the “patient” requires is a computer and an internet connection. 

Furthermore, there is no need to put your life completely on hold. You are more likely to attend an online appointment than a traditional face-to-face one. You do not need to take any leave from your employment. Because it’s online, you can set your own pace. Your confidentiality is covered. Lastly, it’s cheaper, according to initial government research on online treatment cost and other associated costs.

You may be asking “Is there a downside?

The answer to this, unsurprisingly, is also “Yes.” Addiction recovery thrives in a community of peers – other recovering drug addicts and alcoholics who know exactly what you’re going through, as they’ve been right there themselves. These peers can provide an endless stream of face-to-face recovery support – just think of the 12-Step programs. Obviously, with online treatment, this is not possible, although group support meetings do still happen online.

Typical Online Addiction Recovery Programs

What does an online addiction treatment program look like? What’s involved exactly? Both are obvious questions. At present, typical online recovery programs usually last around 6 weeks, and involve the participant virtually interacting with one-to-one counsellors and support groups, reading from detailed resource manuals, and watching educational or inspirational videos, with topics such as nutrition, exercise, and meditation. Additionally, participants will still undergo regular and in-depth assessments of their progress and their changing needs.

Are “Online Rehabs” the Real Future of Addiction Treatment?

To answer this question accurately, you’d undoubtedly need a very powerful crystal ball. At present, nobody knows, to be honest. However, many addiction industry experts do believe that telemedicine for addiction is here to stay, in one form or another, simply because of the many advantages it has for both the patient and the treatment provider. Whether it can actually totally replace the traditional drug rehab really does remain to be seen, however.

To briefly return to the University of Colorado, who continue to research and update the subject of telepsychiatry, and its effectiveness, its Director of Telemedicine, Jay H. Shore, MD., MPH., at the university’s Depression Center, wrote in an article this year that Telehealth and digital services should not replace face-to-face treatment for patients in need – particularly those requiring intensive mental health treatment and support – when in-person contact is once again safe.”

COVID-19’s Short-Term Outlook: Continuing Socio-Economic Disruption

However, even with an eventual vaccine for COVID-19, will that really be the end of the so-called “new normal”? It would appear… sadly not. The US Food and Drug Administration, responsible for approving any new drugs, have said that they would accept a 50% lower level for efficacy for candidate Covid-19 vaccines. 

Efficacy, in case you’re unsure, is defined as “the performance of an intervention under ideal and controlled circumstances.” However, actual effectiveness is “the performance under “real-world” conditions.” This means, in other, simpler words, any new U.S. vaccine only has to safely work 50% of the time – yes, just half the time – in a scientific laboratory to be approved. 

In an opinion piece for a respected U.K. newspaper, Professor David Salisbury, a former director of immunisation at the U.K.’s Department of Health, recently stated that this level of “possible effectiveness” is actually nowhere near enough to stop the virus continuing to circulate across the U.S. – or any other country with such a low efficacy level for potential SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

How Modern Recovery Can Help You: Post-Care Treatment & Recovery Coaches

So, it would appear the COVID-19 virus is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, still being transmitted within communities, and seemingly regardless of vaccine or not. Therefore, it seems an absolute certainty that telemedicine for the treatment of substance abuse disorders is here to stay, too.

Furthermore, an educated guess would suggest that, fingers crossed, it will be here for far longer than the dreaded COVID-19, providing more affordable, more accessible, and more timely structured treatment for substance addiction.

However, what happens to you and your addiction recovery when you’ve finished your online treatment program? Is it just virtual 12-Step meetings from now on? Is there a next step to the process of recovery? Lastly, how can you safely maintain the current impetus of your recovery?

This is absolutely where Modern Recovery can help you.

Modern Recovery provides a continuation of online addiction treatment for those individuals who need it the most, and assistance for their families, too, with a unique behavioral health accountability and support program that offers technology-driven results. Additionally, this program is also offered to addiction treatment professionals to enhance their own services.

So, how do we help the recovering addict maintain the ongoing process of their recovery?

How Modern Recovery Helps Individuals

  1. Personalized Recovery Coaching: Your coach is your strongest advocate for your health, safety, and wellness, and is available 24/7. He or she can act as a mentor, a guide, a workout buddy, a friend, or just someone to simply keep you company when you need it.
  2. Technology-Driven Results Through Our Accountability App: The accountability app is your emotional safety net, as we ensure help is always available, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The app provides:
  • Geo-tracking and scheduled check-ins for accountability with attending recovery meetings and therapy
  • Real-time monitoring and alerts that go directly to your coach so he or she can stop a crisis before it happens
  • Periodic mood check-ins so your coach stays up-to-date on how you’re feeling
  • Family support and access to the coach and other resources
  1. Crisis Intervention – Stopping a Relapse Before It Happens: We take a proactive rather than a reactive approach, intervening in triggering situations before they become relapses. Your coach is aware of your location, your habits, your environment, and your mood, so he or she will spot tricky situations before they become problems.
  2. Additional Measures for Relapse Prevention:
  • Skill-building and education services to help you build healthy habits, and learn new methods to stay on the right track
  • Accountability testing that includes periodic drug tests and breathalyzer tests
  • Resource networks that include your coach, your therapists, your family, your loved ones, and even the staff at your addiction treatment center

At Modern Recovery, our primary goal is to move the client from being treatment-reliant to being self-reliant, to improve outcomes, and to maximize each client’s chances of success. We aim to work with the client’s main treatment center by providing a seamless symbiotic relationship that will truly benefit the individual client and their recovery. Contact us today to learn more.

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