Clinician Perspectives on Methadone Service Delivery and the Use of Telemedicine During the COVID-19 Pandemic

A Qualitative Study

Published in: Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Volume 124 (May 2021). doi: 10.1016/j.jsat.2021.108288

Posted on RAND.org on May 05, 2021

by Sarah B. Hunter, Alex R. Dopp, Allison J. Ober, Lori Uscher-Pines

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Objectives

During the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid treatment programs (OTPs) in the U.S. were granted new flexibility in methadone dispensing and the use of telemedicine. To explore the impact of the pandemic and accompanying policy changes on service delivery, we asked OTP clinicians about changes in care patterns and perceptions of impacts on access and quality.

Methods

In May–June 2020, we completed semistructured telephone interviews with 20 OTP clinicians (physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners) from 13 U.S. states. The study recruited participants through Medscape, an online platform where clinicians access clinical content. We used rapid thematic analysis, a qualitative approach, to summarize participants' expressed views related to the research objectives.

Results

Clinicians identified a range of changes to methadone and ancillary service delivery as a result of COVID-19. Most clinicians reported that OTPs were prescribing more take-home doses of methadone and providing psychosocial services and medication management via telemedicine. Many also reported reducing the frequency of urine toxicology screening and accepting fewer new patients. While some clinicians expressed support for the increased flexibility around dosing and use of telemedicine, others expressed concern about increased risk of medication diversion and overdose. Clinicians reported several advantages and disadvantages of the changes due to the pandemic and that continued reimbursement would be required to maintain telemedicine services.

Conclusions

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered the delivery of methadone treatment in the U.S. This study's findings suggest that OTPs may have reduced their methadone treatment during the early months of the pandemic and that the flexibilities that policy changes offered may not have resulted in changes in care delivery for all patients. Careful consideration and additional analysis should inform which changes OTPs should maintain long-term.

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