Last year, more than 92,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, a nearly 30 percent increase from 2019, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of these deaths were caused by illicit opioid drugs such as fentanyl and heroin. While effective medication-based treatments are available, only one in four people with opioid use disorder receives such treatments. FDA-approved medications including buprenorphine and methadone are able to prevent withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings in those who stop using illicit drugs and are reported to significantly decrease overdose deaths. Treatment also can include counseling techniques to encourage motivation to change and prevent relapse.
In the new study, the UMSOM researchers used the mobile health unit to evaluate and treat 94 patients with opioid use disorder, all of whom lived in rural areas along the Eastern Shore region of Maryland. These patients accessed the unit for treatment within 10 miles of their respective homes from June to October 2020 — during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The mobile unit was staffed with a nurse, a substance use counselor, and a peer recovery specialist. Patients were provided with in-person screening and counseling as well as access to a physician via a secure videoconferencing link. Buprenorphine or naloxone was electronically prescribed and sent to a patient’s local pharmacy.
The researchers wanted to measure how effective the mobile unit was at maintaining patients in buprenorphine therapy and decreasing their use of illicit opioids. They found nearly 64 percent of patients remained in treatment after two months and 58 percent after three months, rates that are similar to those seen in traditional in-person substance use treatment programs. Opioid use was reduced, on average, by about one-third, which also was similar to what researchers have seen in traditional clinical settings.
“To our knowledge, this is the first of its kind mobile telemedicine unit to treat opioid use disorders in rural communities,” said Annabelle (Mimi) Belcher, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at UMSOM. “We have demonstrated that the model works as well as traditional clinics situated in more populated areas, which is an exciting finding.”
UMSOM faculty Chamindi Seneviratne, MD; Jessica Anane, MPH; Kelly Coble, LCSW-C; Sarah Kattakuzhy, MD; Aaron Greenblatt, MD; Christopher Welsh, MD; and Alexander Pappas, MD, were co-authors on this study. The research was funded by a federal grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration. The telemedicine mobile treatment unit was funded by the Maryland Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Administration.
“Providing patients with access to health care via telemedicine and mobile health units has become increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, and our UMSOM faculty continue to innovate in this area,” said UMSOM Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, who also is the executive vice president for medical affairs, University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor at UMSOM. "This new study provides evidence that telemedicine and mobile health units really work to provide patients with access to the lifesaving services they need. We will continue to explore other ways to provide mobile health care to patients in underserved communities.”