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Impact of VA's video telehealth tablets on substance use disorder care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gujral K, Van Campen J, Jacobs J, Kimerling R, Zulman DM, Blonigen D. Impact of VA's video telehealth tablets on substance use disorder care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of substance use and addiction treatment. 2023 Jul 1; 150:209067.

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BACKGROUND: Telehealth has the potential to improve health care access for patients but it has been underused and understudied for examining patients with substance use disorders (SUD). VA began distributing video-enabled tablets to veterans with access barriers in 2016 to facilitate participation in home-based telehealth and expanded this program in 2020 due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. OBJECTIVE: Examine the impact of VA's video-enabled telehealth tablets on mental health services for patients diagnosed with SUD. METHODS: This study included VA patients who had = 1 mental health visit in the calendar year 2019 and a documented diagnosis of SUD. Using difference-in-differences and event study designs, we compared outcomes for SUD-diagnosed patients who received a video-enabled tablet from VA between March 15th, 2020 and December 31st, 2021 and SUD-diagnosed patients who never received VA tablets, 10 months before and after tablet-issuance. Outcomes included monthly frequency of SUD psychotherapy visits, SUD specialty group therapy visits and SUD specialty individual outpatient visits. We examined changes in video visits and changes in visits across all modalities of care (video, phone, and in-person). Regression models adjusted for several covariates such as age, sex, rurality, race, ethnicity, physical and mental health chronic conditions, and broadband coverage in patients' residential zip-code. RESULTS: The cohort included 21,684 SUD-diagnosed tablet-recipients and 267,873 SUD-diagnosed non-recipients. VA's video-enabled tablets were associated with increases in video visits for SUD psychotherapy (+3.5 visits/year), SUD group therapy (+2.1 visits/year) and SUD individual outpatient visits (+1 visit/year), translating to increases in visits across all modalities (in-person, phone and video): increase of 18 % for SUD psychotherapy (+1.9 visits/year), 10 % for SUD specialty group therapy (+0.5 visit/year), and 4 % for SUD specialty individual outpatient treatment (+0.5 visit/year). CONCLUSIONS: VA's distribution of video-enabled tablets during the COVID-19 pandemic were associated with higher engagement with video-based services for SUD care among patients diagnosed with SUD, translating to modest increases in total visits across in-person, phone and video modalities. Distribution of video-enabled devices can offer patients critical continuity of SUD therapy, particularly in scenarios where they have heightened barriers to in-person care.

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