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Study: Telehealth for opioid use disorder linked to lower risk of fatal overdose

Receiving telehealth services for opioid use disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with reduced odds for fatal overdose among Medicare beneficiaries, according to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the National Institutes of Health studied two cohorts of fee-for-service beneficiaries starting an OUD-related episode of care: one pre-pandemic group of more than 105,000 and a second pandemic group of more than 70,000.

They found beneficiaries who started care during the pandemic and received OUD-related telehealth services had a 33% reduced risk of a fatal overdose. Though mortality rates were higher in the pandemic group, the percentage of deaths due to overdoses were similar between the cohorts. 

Researchers also found patients who received medications for OUD from treatment programs had a 59% reduced risk of fatal overdose, while those who received buprenorphine in office settings had a 38% lower risk. However, receiving extended-release naltrexone in office settings wasn’t linked to lower odds of overdose. 

“This cohort study found that, among Medicare beneficiaries initiating OUD-related care during the COVID-19 pandemic, receipt of OUD-related telehealth services was associated with reduced risk for fatal drug overdose, as was receipt of MOUD from opioid treatment programs and receipt of buprenorphine in office-based settings,” the study’s authors wrote. “Strategies to expand provision of MOUD, increase retention in care and address co-occurring physical and behavioral health conditions are needed.”


Overdose deaths overall spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching more than 107,000 in 2021. More than 80,000 deaths involved opioids. 

The latest study reflects earlier research on OUD-related telehealth services. However, the authors note that few patients are accessing care. Only one in five Medicare beneficiaries in the pandemic cohort received telehealth services, and one in eight received medications for OUD.

“The results of this study add to the growing research documenting the benefits of expanding the use of telehealth services for people with opioid use disorder, as well as the need to improve retention and access to medication treatment for opioid use disorder,” lead author Christopher M. Jones, director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC, said in a statement. “The findings from this collaborative study also highlight the importance of working across agencies to identify successful strategies to address and get ahead of the constantly evolving overdose crisis.”

Margie Zuk and Melissa “Penny” Chase will offer more detail at the HIMSS23 session “Preparing for the Next Cyber Attack.” It is scheduled for Wednesday, April 19 at 10:15 a.m. – 10:35 a.m. CT at the North Building, Level 3, in Hall B, Booth 8539, Federal Health Pavilion.

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