For those in addiction recovery, telehealth has pros and cons

Posted at 8:04 PM, Jun 24, 2020

In the wake of COVID-19, doctors officers switched to treatment through telehealth to keep patients safe. For addicts and recovering addicts, the idea of getting help though virtual connections was a little different.

“I’ve continually gone to meetings for 39 years, and now all of a sudden I’m not going to meetings,” Kathleen Gargan said. She’s been sober since 1981. “Thirty-nine years. I’m very lucky.”

She has been going to meetings with different recovery groups for decades.

“I think that's what’s kept me sober all this time is continually going to meetings and being reminded of what my life was like when I drank,” she explained. Most recently through LifeRing, a peer-to-peer support organization.

For the last few months, group meetings have been mostly non-existent. The COVID-19 pandemic forced support groups to move online, which has its pros and cons.

“It has made treatment available to some people who otherwise wouldn't be able to get it because they're in rural areas or far away, but it is lacking some of that in person interaction, accountability,” Doctor Christian Hopfer, an addiction psychiatrist, said. He is with the UCHealth Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation in Colorado. “A lot of the treatment is connecting with other people in person.”

Quarantinis, virtual happy hours, physical isolation. Market research firm Nielsen found that in-store alcohol sales growth for the week of March 31 spiked 54 percent compared to the year before. For the entire month of April, online alcohol sales were up 400 percent or more compared to the same time in 2019.

“We have patients who lost their jobs, were at home, and just started drinking all day,” Dr. Hopfer said. He said he’s even had some patients show up to virtual sessions intoxicated.

Still -- he says virtual support is better than no support.

“We felt having a telemedicine option was incredibly important to people. Both for people who live in an area where they don't have resources available for addiction treatment, but also for people who have busy lives,” Doctor Abe Malkin, a Medical Advisor for Monument, said.

Monument is a new platform aimed at connecting patients to doctors.

“Initially, the founder Mike Russell created Monument through his own journey to change his relationship with alcohol,” Dr. Malkin said. “Due to the pandemic and to social distancing and stay-at-home orders, people have had to deal with increasing anxiety, feelings of isolation, which have further triggered relapses in the community.”

Monument doesn’t replace the detox process, but it works for those looking for a treatment center, a doctor to connect with, or for peer support.

“We’re really trying to make this more welcoming, more inviting to people. Something they can feel that they’re part of a community without having to depart from their normal daily routines,” Dr. Malkin said.

Even with new platforms to help with connection, Gargan says nothing beats in-person interaction.

“Since we have the Zoom meetings, they feel great about it, they don't have to get out of their pajamas ….and they don't have to drive anywhere,” she said. “Face to face experience is, in general, richer.”