VSee, a telehealth vendor, provides a scaled-down version of its software on a trial basis. The software can be used for the USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine program, which has funding available for opioid-specific products. (Photo source: VSee.com)

Communities worried about opioid and other substance abuse received two significant pieces of great news this month: one involves free money and the other involves free telehealth technology.

First, the money.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is giving funding priority in the Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) Grant for applications addressing opioid abuse in rural communities. That’s according to former Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett (now a rural policy adviser in the White House).

“The opioid epidemic is dramatically impacting prosperity in many small towns and rural places across the country,” Hazlett said in a press release. “With this focused investment, we are targeting our resources to be a strong partner to rural communities to build innovative local responses to this significant challenge.”

The Distance Learning and Telemedicine program, initiated several years ago, is comprised of two funding steams – traditional DLT projects and opioid-specific projects.

The traditional DLT fund helps rural communities use telecommunications to connect to each other and to the world. Projects may address opioid treatment but are not required to. Projects that do address opioid issues will receive 10 “special consideration points,” which can boost an applicant’s rankings in funding decisions. (Project that have science, technology, engineering and math [STEM] education as their primary purpose also qualify for consideration points.) Deadline for these proposals is May 15, 2019.

Proposals competing in the opioid-specific telemedicine program are due one month earlier on April 15, 2019. In this funding category, projects that work in 220 “at-risk” counties will receive 30 special consideration points. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined which counties are eligible (click here for a list).

Physicians and Patients Can Test Telehealth

Now, the free telehealth technology.

Also last month, telehealth vendor Vsee announced the Vsee Clinic. The company is making a scaled-down version of the software available for free. The company has not announced an end date for the trial offer.

The software is suitable for many types of telehealth applications that are supported in the USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine program. Mental health professionals, general practitioners, specialists, clinics, and others medical providers can test Vsee Clinic to see how they and their patients respond.

Doctors cannot issue online prescriptions for substances regulated by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Milton Chen, Vsee CEO says, “However, telehealth can manage the initial patient screening and video consultations. It’s also good for treatments that involve peer support groups that are similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Telehealth can remove barriers of distance that might prevent participation in treatment, Chen says.

“Substance abuse often leads to other medical issues that require specialized treatments,” says Erika Chuang, Vsee VP of product management. “Rural hospitals in particular need access to various specialists who work in larger cities that are hours away from some rural residents. Telehealth enables medical providers and their patients to experience basic telehealth treatments that involve video consults.”

Before using telehealth, communities need to determine if parity laws are in place in their state that allow insurance companies to reimburse telehealth treatment at the same level as comparable in-person services. Then medical providers must determine if their patients’ specific insurance policies cover telehealth treatments.

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words; Video Is Priceless

Video is a major component of telemedicine opiate treatment, and it’s more than just establishing a video connection between the patient and the mental healthcare practitioner.

“In the past, when we needed video conferencing or collaboration, you had to have a lot of expensive video endpoints and on-premises infrastructure requiring people to gather in specific places to access video services,” says Joan Vandermate, head of Logitech VC Marketing. “With VcaaS (video conferencing as a service) now accessible virtually anywhere, and on any device, individuals can access healthcare workers, friends, caretakers, or others for an immediate ‘counseling’ or chat session.”

Data from a patient’s medical history or other medical encounters can also help in opioid treatment. Mental and other health issues, medications, lifestyles, and life events can trigger depression, anxiety, and various activities that lead to substance abuse.

Vandermate advises, “If telehealth teams categorize and store this data in the cloud, as well as other relevant materials, individuals can download short videos with tips, online resources, and coping mechanisms to help them get past the moment. Video conferencing apps then can connect the individuals to clinicians and counselors as easily as clicking on an embedded link.”

These interactions are where “anywhere, anytime” personal video collaboration can make a great impact on substance-abuse treatment. As long as the connections between individuals and groups are speedy and dependable, there can be immediate communication when minutes matter.

Josh Rubin, program officer for Learning Health System Initiatives at the University of Michigan Medical School, adds, “Just be sure to create ways of using video and other communications to document the success or failure of these applications. We must have the ability for ourselves and others to learn from our actions. That’s the best way to reduce the opioid problems while getting better results from our government dollars.”

Craig Settles  consults with municipalities and co-ops about their broadband networks’ business and marketing plans. His latest report advocates  unifying broadband and telehealth deployments.

Disclosure: Vsee Clinic and Logitech are sponsors of a forthcoming report on telehealth by Craig Settles. They will be listed in the report with a short description of their business. They do not exercise editorial control over the report or Settles’ other writing.

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