Man on video conference

Meeting Substance Use Disorder Needs Virtually   

Screams filled the bustling emergency room. A patient was in pain due to withdrawal from drugs and needed help.   

With a back-up of patients waiting to receive care, a call was made to River’s Bend, PC, in Troy, recently recognized as a Blue Distinction Center for Substance Use Treatment and Recovery. Bruce Goldberg, president and co-owner of River’s Bend, sprang into action.   

In quick succession, Goldberg was able to arrange for ambulatory detox in the patient’s car and helped secure medication to aid in the detox process by working with a doctor over a virtual platform. The patient is now virtually attending regular therapy sessions, thankful to have received quick treatment.   

“(They) more or less called it a godsend for what we were able to do,” Goldberg said.   

Virtual treatment, real-life benefits 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, more therapeutic services have transitioned from in-person to virtual platforms such as Zoom. Earlier this year, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan announced coverage for many types of virtual services to support low- to moderate-risk patients with substance use disorder.  

“We know that treatment for medical and behavioral health issues including substance use disorder will never completely; go back to the “old way.” Access and ease of obtaining evidence-based treatment has been made more convenient with telemedicine,” explained Dr. William Beecroft, medical director, Behavioral Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “Although not everyone can benefit from this modality, many can, and they attain better health and quality of life.”   

Goldberg and Stephanie Howey, vice president at River’s Bend, say being able to offer services virtually is helping people at a time when many need more support than ever.   

Virtual platforms offer providers the ability to more seamlessly connect patients to services when time is of the essence. Howey explained that when people make the decision to ask for help, how quickly they’re able to access it can determine outcomes.    

“If they have even a slight inkling that they’re ready to stop or they’re in danger of continuing use – we have to move on it instantly or their mind will change,” she said.   

Quick access to a doctor able to prescribe medication is particularly critical to help ease the detox process. Howey said response times to get people into treatment have improved due to the center’s ability to quickly contact and work with medical professionals.      

Ongoing treatment groups offering connection 

Once patients are past the acute detox phase of treatment, they’re able to access virtual group therapy services, which are also important for people who might feel like they’ve lost control in other areas of their lives.  

“The only thing they have control over is their own mental health and substance use disorder,” Howey explained.  

Prior to the pandemic, Howey said River’s Bend was offering about three to four intensive outpatient programs for people with substance use disorder. Now, they have almost 10 groups with 10-12 participants per group. Demand for the sessions has gone up for several reasons. For many, familiar supports such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings might not be happening so participants are turning to traditional forms of therapy. For others, stresses are piling up as nearly everything about day-to-day life has changed such as work, family dynamics and rising uncertainty over when things will return to “normal”.       

“There are just so many things that have come up over the last 6-7 months that we’ve never seen,” Goldberg said.   

Both Howey and Goldberg say the virtual groups are working well for people. Many who might have been anxious about in-person groups are finding the virtual format freeing and more comfortable for them. The convenience of meeting at home also helps those with inflexible work schedules. As a facilitator, Goldberg said he likes the virtual format’s flexibility – he can easily shift gears or find multimedia assets to share with the group.      

“I’m starting to love them, and I hate technology,” he said. “It’s really been nice to make those adjustments and it meets the clients’ needs so much better.”   

Making new, healthy connections is an important part of treatment, Howey said, and she’s been pleased to see relationships forming, even if they’ve been forged virtually.    

“They’re still having a connection even though they’re on Zoom because they all need it, so it’s still being created,” she said.   


Photo credit: yulkapopkova

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