What your doctor is reading on Medscape.com:
APRIL 28, 2020 — The COVID-19 pandemic is posing significant challenges while also providing unique opportunities for patients with substance use disorders (SUD), a leading expert says.
Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), said the pandemic has accelerated the use of telemedicine, making it easier for patients with SUD to access treatment. It has also led to the proliferation of more mental health hotlines, which is critical since the vast majority of these patients have comorbid mental illness.
In addition, COVID-19 has resulted in increased availability of “alternative” peer support mechanisms via cellphones or computers to aid individuals’ sobriety.
Volkow spoke at the virtual American Psychiatric Association (APA) Spring Highlights Meeting 2020, which is replacing the organization’s canceled Annual Meeting.
While methadone clinics have had to close during the pandemic, making it challenging for those on medically assisted treatment to receive methadone or buprenorphine, some of the rules and regulations have been relaxed in order to make these medications accessible without the need for in-person attendance at a clinic.
In addition, as recently reported by Medscape Medical News, the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration has relaxed some of its own regulations regarding telehealth and opioid treatment programs.
Social Isolation, Stigma Intensified
A pandemic increases anxiety in the general population, but for patients with SUD who may be also be struggling with homelessness and comorbid mental illness, the situation can further exacerbate social stigma and isolation — leading to relapse, more overdoses, and overdose deaths, said Volkow.
Social interaction is “extraordinarily important” for patients and “one of the most powerful tools we have” to build resilience, she added.
Right now, said Volkow, “we are in the dark as to how COVID infections have affected the number of overdose deaths.”
However, she noted that NIDA has issued a Notice of Special Interest to spur “urgent” research into how COVID-19 is affecting outcomes in patients with SUD.
“So even through this devastation, we can actually extract something that may help others in future,” she said.