Leveraging Technology To Improve Substance Abuse Treatment and Recovery

In the world of substance use disorder (SUD), timely, convenient, and personalized treatment is necessary.

At least 21 million Americans have a SUD, but only about 10% get treatment. Stigma, complex symptoms, and limited accessibility to treatment all keep SUD patients out of reach of help. Between commute, interruptions to regular life, and the disease itself, the years of treatment required for SUD takes a toll on recovery.

Healthcare providers need to reset the bar on SUD treatment. Changing how patients access care and introducing new treatment and recovery options will bring new light into an area of healthcare that desperately needs innovation.

And patients are looking for new options — in a study of 363 substance use treatment facilities tested conducted by Health Recovery Solutions, the percentage of SUD patients highly interested in telehealth technologies was always significantly higher than the percentage of facilities currently using said technology.

Better technology and more advanced treatment options is not only a desired solution for SUD patients but a necessary one for organizations who treat substance use disorder. Here are new technologies that are changing how we approach substance use treatment and recovery.

What is substance use treatment?

Substance use disorder affects people from all walks of life and all age groups and includes misuse of both drugs and alcohol. It both affects and can be the result of mental health struggles or conditions. While these illnesses are common, recurrent, and often very serious, they are treatable with the right plans, and recovery is possible.

Alcohol or drug dependence is now often considered a long-term illness, like asthma or diabetes. With that framework, SUD treatment needs to happen indefinitely. In other words, substance use treatment is similar to treating a chronic illness.

What does a substance use treatment plan look like?

Treatment of a substance use disorder looks different for every patient — tailoring their care journey to their specific needs ensures they continue to receive treatment for their entire life.

Creating this journey takes careful planning. With conditions in many different medical areas and programs, you’ll have to navigate and improve care in many ways.

But technological innovation is improving how healthcare providers interact with their SUD patients. While these technologies may seem entirely new, they all address needs and fill in gaps between familiar treatment steps. These familiar treatment steps include:

  • Inpatient treatment addresses physical monitoring and care in a longer-term setting like a hospital or clinic, with detoxification and rehabilitation services.
  • Residential programs provide a living environment with treatment services. It offers different treatment models and can last up to a year, with different phases to rehabilitate from aspects of the patient’s life that may contribute to the disorder.
  • Partial hospitalization or day treatment allows patients to attend treatment for 4 to 8 hours per day while still living in their own home if it’s considered stable and effective.
  • Outpatient and intensive outpatient programs extend partial hospitalization to shorter visits, either daily or a few times a week. Intensive outpatient treatment programs require a person to attend 9 to 20 hours of weekly treatment activities. Both treatments rely on patient transportation and trust in a stable home environment.
  • Methadone clinics (also called opioid treatment programs) offer medication-assisted outpatient treatment for those dependent on opioid drugs along with various therapies and other treatments.

How organizations are leveraging technology to improve substance use treatment and recovery

Virtual therapy and counseling

Alcoholics Anonymous or public meetings aren’t the best treatment for everyone. Also called telepsychiatry, virtual therapy and counseling allow those managing their substance use to meet online with a care professional if that best works for them.

Patients can choose to contact a counselor from any distance and at any time, at their convenience. This enhanced accessibility helps increase care consistency between outpatient care, clinic visits, and treatment programs. It also reduces care discrepancy for those in low-access areas without the ability to travel frequently.

The free sobriety tracking app Nomo keeps people connected with support group members. It helps individuals keep track of their sobriety and share it with others, including counselors. Like those with chronic conditions, substance use disorder patients need tailored outreach, easier access, and more options to keep up with their condition.

Technology is making huge changes in substance use treatment and recovery. With more insight into a patient’s life and struggles with SUD, clinicians can create better care plans and improve treatment outcomes. And when health technology is created to help patients understand their condition and aid their recovery, they’re set on a better path toward healing. Here are some of the technologies used for improved SUD treatment.

Self-guided interventions

When SUD patients can get guidance outside or in tandem with care facilities, it progresses them past inpatient treatments, residential programs, and partial hospitalization and into outpatient care and regain their self-sufficiency.

An app named “RESET” is FDA-approved and proven to decrease relapse through therapeutic interventions and measured follow-up.

Similarly, web-based self-help interventions provide basic information and intervention for users to explore at their own pace. Websites like Down Your Drink and apps like Reframe empower patients to take their health and recovery journey into their own hands.

Hotline help

Patients in a further stage of treatment when longer, more frequent care is no longer required have made great progress. Relapse, however, is still a possibility — craving alcohol or drugs is often the most challenging hurdle.

Having someone to reach out to in these difficult moments can help immensely in a recovery plan. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-days-a-year treatment referral and information service hotline for individuals and families facing substance use disorder.

Technology can make sure your patients know who and when to call. The smartphone app Addiction-Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System (A-CHESS) offers ongoing support to patients on their phones 24/7. It monitors their location and sends a message to the user if they are near a “high risk” area.

Remote patient monitoring

Remote patient monitoring (RPM) helps track patient progress during inpatient and outpatient treatment. Clinicians can gather data through blood pressure monitoring, pulse oximetry to monitor oxygen saturation (SPO2), and respiratory rate through wearable devices, providing real-time information for SUD patients to treat relapse and other emergencies.

Technology such as DrKumo, for example, monitors vital signs and provides immediate medical intervention in case of potential signs of opioid overdose. RPM can track reactions and respond accordingly as clinicians introduce medications into treatment.

Some treatment centers also incorporate technology into innovative treatment strategies, including neurofeedback therapy. With this type of treatment protocol, the participant’s brain is trained to counteract cravings for drugs using electrodes, computers, and specialized software. By reading the participant’s brainwaves, doctors can make appropriate decisions on how to reward the patient based on what they see.

Coping games and virtual 3D systems

Patients can also find support through online communities. Second Life lets individuals choose a virtual avatar to interact in the virtual world of discussion forums, blogs, news resources, shopping, information exchange, and more.

MindCotine uses virtual reality for cue exposure therapy. It helps teach participants how to deal with the craving for smoking to prevent relapse.

Cohesive communication

In substance use treatment, many caregivers must address different parts of the patient’s recovery journey — therapists for mental health checks, clinicians for physical checks, counselors for abuse help, etc.

If care team members aren’t on the same page, treatment missteps can happen. Care teams can use technology to stay on track, make better progress, and avoid potentially dangerous miscommunication like multiple prescriptions, counteracting drugs, repetitive therapy, etc.

Improving Substance Use Treatment and Recovery With Technology

Treatment is the first step to substance use disorder recovery, and recovery is ongoing. Whether it’s an app or care management platform, technology has been proven to improve SUD treatment — and we can only go up from here.

“Digital intervention in addiction has arrived and is going to increase further. From the use of simple smartphones to digital sensors and even to machine learning… The ultimate goal of technology should be enhancing the engagement between patient and clinician to facilitate recovery by strengthening connectedness.” — National Library of Medicine

A platform like Welkin keeps all caregivers on the same page so they can provide the best care possible. It manages the patient’s care flow all in one place, allowing for more proactive care, thoughtful interactions, and cohesive communication. If you’re a digital health company or running care programs for substance use disorder, Welkin provides technology to:

  • Reduce adverse events
  • Keep patients engaged
  • Track program adherence
  • Promote accountability
  • Build a strong community
  • Enhance accessibility

To understand how you can achieve the best patient outcomes, explore how you can move toward patient-centered care with the right technology.

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