Like other health care providers, Boston Medical Center transitioned to telemedicine for most patients when the pandemic hit. That was also when the state ordered insurance to cover virtual visits the same as in-person visits.
BMC’s OBAT team scrambled to get ready, setting up a hotline, giving phones to patients and programming in clinicians’ numbers. The team also provided phones to all the clinicians and reached out to people who might need their services, such as those released from correctional settings and those accessing needle exchange programs, to let them know that addiction treatment was still available.
“Patients, when they need treatment, get super anxious,” says Colleen LaBelle, director of the OBAT program. “If they can’t reach somebody and can’t access it, bad things can happen.”
The OBAT program used to take patient calls from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., but LaBelle wanted someone available around the clock, because she expected the pandemic would create confusion. At first, that meant giving out her own cell phone number.
Since March, LaBelle says the number of weekly patient visits in the program has doubled to about 400, and many patients tell her they find telehealth more convenient. She says more of her patients now show up for their appointments.
Overall, Labelle believes the changes prompted by the pandemic have helped addiction treatment. In addition to telehealth, those changes include allowing treatment programs to create COVID-19 units, and permitting easier access to addiction medications like buprenorphine, without an in-person visit first.
“We’ve basically started to treat substance use disorder like other diseases and normalize it somewhat,” Labelle says. “I hope this pandemic helps us look at substance use like any other disease.”