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Understanding opportunities and challenges with telemedicine-delivered buprenorphine during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mattocks KM, Moore DT, Wischik DL, Lazar CM, Rosen MI. Understanding opportunities and challenges with telemedicine-delivered buprenorphine during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of substance abuse treatment. 2022 Aug 1; 139:108777.

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INTRODUCTION: Opioid use disorder (OUD) is a debilitating illness that remains a serious public health issue in the United States. Use of telemedicine to deliver medications for the treatment of OUD (MOUD) was limited until the confluence of the COVID-19 and opioid addiction epidemics in spring 2020. Starting in spring 2020, the Department of Veterans Health Affairs (VHA) transitioned from in-person to mostly telemedicine-delivered OUD care to reduce COVID-19 transmission among veterans and providers. To gain a nuanced understanding of provider perspectives on MOUD care delivery using telemedicine, we conducted semi-structured interviews with VHA providers who were using telehealth to deliver MOUD care. METHODS: We conducted semi-structed Zoom interviews with VA clinicians at nine VA Medical Centers (VAMCs) in eight states. Potential study participants were identified as providers who were involved in referrals and provision of buprenorphine treatment for chronic pain and opioid addiction. Audio-recordings of all interviews were transcribed and entered into Atlas. Ti qualitative analysis software. The study team analyzed the transcripts for major themes related to tele-prescribing practices for buprenorphine. RESULTS: Twenty-three VA providers participated in the study, representing 32% of all providers invited to participate in the study. The research team identified the following four themes: (1) COVID-19 spurred a seismic shift in OUD treatment; (2) Video calls provided a rare window into veterans' lives; (3) Providers experienced numerous challenges to virtual visits; and (4) Providers wrestled with paternalism and trust. CONCLUSIONS: The pandemic accelerated the movement toward harm reduction approaches. Prior to the pandemic, stringent requirements existed for patients receiving MOUD care. Providers in this study reflected on the need for these requirements (e.g., in-person visits, toxicology screens) and how reducing this monitoring implied more trust in patients' autonomous decisions. Providers' observation that videoconferencing offered them a window into patients' lives may offer some ways to improve rapport, and research should explore how best to incorporate the additional information conveyed in virtual visits.

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