The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting every aspect of life including efforts to help those struggling with addiction.
Recovery and treatment centers across the country have had to adapt to meet Centers For Disease Control and Prevention guidelines with the use of social distancing, reducing group sizes, outdoor sessions and championing telehealth resources to continue to help those in need.
Brentwood-based Spero Health provides physician services, counseling and recovery support services for substance use disorder at locations across Tennessee, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.
Spero Health CEO Steve Priest said in a phone call that the most important challenge is maintaining a connection between patients and providers during this unprecedented time.
“We sort of say that the best thing we can do for a new patient is to give them a hug, because bluntly, a lot of them feel like they don’t matter anymore,” Priest said. “So a big part of it was let’s just connect, and you take that and now you have today’s world which is no contact with COVID-19. You have to change how you connect with people.”
Priest said that after working through a series of steps to be able to serve patients via telehealth options, they started utilizing Zoom. He said that they've seen 90% of group counseling and about half of total clinic visit being done online, a number that Priest says he expects to grow in the coming weeks as they continue to what they can to "give a virtual hug."
Priest said that some challenges have come along with the focus on technology, such as access to the internet or computers that some patients just don't have.
Promises Behavioral Health, another Brentwood-based company, operates facilities across Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, that offer treatments for for substance abuse, sexual addiction, trauma, eating disorders, and other mental health disorders.
Promises Chief Marketing Officer Kathy Frossard said in an email that Promises has added a new telehealth service called Virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) for those who may not be able to attend in-person therapy sessions.
“IOP is most effectively used as a step-down from a higher level of care to help in the transition toward independent functioning, or as a step-up in intensity of services when traditional outpatient therapy does not provide enough structure or support,” Frossard said.
The program includes comprehensive diagnostic and biopsychosocial assessment, treatment planning, individual therapy, couple and family therapy, group therapy, psychiatric and medical referrals as needed, support group referrals, and linkage to Promises Rooted alumni network, all of which clients can access from home.
Frossard said that in addition to clinical telehealth options Promises is also offering other virtual activities including recovery meetings, morning reflection meetings, inspirational recovery story podcasts and other supportive wellness activities.
A third Brentwood-based company, American Addiction Centers, operates treatment centers in eight states including nine inpatient facilities and more than dozen outpatient locations serving thousands of patients each year.
AAC Director of Corporate Communications Joy Sutton said in an email that in March AAC launched free virtual support meetings as well as a COVID-19 Resource Center for those seeking answers on how to access treatment and navigate recovery during the public health crisis.
Priest, Frossard and Sutton all said that ongoing public health crisis does run the risk of contributing to the struggle of recovery as self-isolation and anxiety over job loss or other issues impacted by the virus set in, increasing the risk of relapse.
"There is heightened worry and real concerns of the safety of their family members, feelings of isolation, fear and anxiety surrounding the unknown for all of us at this time. For those in treatment, these concerns can be distractors from the recovery process," Frossard said.
"It is important to note that relapse from recovery has little to do with the action of using drugs, alcohol or returning to a certain mental health pattern," Frossard said. "Relapse is built on emotional responses that can lead a person to backslide. The uncertainty of this health crisis can lead a person in treatment to think that they are 'well enough' or that it’s ‘okay’ to leave treatment early and return to damaging habits in order to numb the impact of negative thoughts. By recognizing these concerns to be valid, we can meet clients where they are in the treatment process through individual therapy programs."
All three representatives have reported surges in patients in need of treatment at their respective companies, in part because that needed connection and help can now be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection.
“We’re experiencing more people calling us to get help because we are available because we can do telehealth, because our clinic doors do remain open and we’ve got the spirit of our team to be on the front lines of healthcare,” Priest said. “At the end of the day it takes a human being getting up and saying, ‘I’m willing to go to work today to take care of flow human beings because I know that it matters to them.”
The ongoing opioid crisis has been a huge challenge for communities across the nation and one that continues even as the COVID-19 pandemic takes over news headlines and understandably became the major focus of healthcare providers over the past month.
"We are seeing an extraordinary number of patients seeking first-time treatment or who have relapsed and wish to seek further treatment. We must remember that our nation is still facing an addiction crisis that claims hundreds of lives every day," Sutton said.
While the challenges of running clean and safe facilities has grown for all three of these companies, they have all expressed a commitment to continue treatment and support for those who are dealing with addiction and recovery one day at a time.
"The services that we provide are critical, and without our ability to treat the disease of addiction, patients who are best suited for addiction treatment would be showing up in emergency rooms and hospitals nationwide," Sutton said. "It’s important to remember that although we’re in the midst of a pandemic, the addiction crisis is still ongoing. Some statistics have shown that as many as one in eight people suffer from addiction and people continue to die every day from the disease."