5 Ways Technology Can Combat Staffing Shortages in Addiction Treatment


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Over the past few years, we have seen a worst-case scenario develop in the addiction treatment industry: the need for treatment has skyrocketed while the number of clinical staff has rapidly declined.

With approximately 60 million people in the United States using substances who would benefit from treatment – ​​and more than 100,000 overdose deaths last year alone, the need for treatment for substance use disorders (SUD) has never been bigger.

At the same time, employee turnover in the industry is at 50%, with around 25% of those who left saying they had no plans to return to the field. As a result, Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, predicted a staffing shortage of up to 150,000 providers over the next five years – a huge shortfall that will undoubtedly put millions of people at risk. danger and could cost countless lives.

While workforce recruitment and development must remain a top priority, we also need urgent and innovative solutions that can provide essential interim care options.


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Technology plays a central role in getting people the help they need and acts as a force multiplier for the staff currently in place. Despite the beneficial impact of technology today, behavioral health will need to scale up its use of technology to meet increased demand with a continuing and growing shortage of critical personnel. Here’s how:

1. Artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots enable crisis intervention

People with mental illness and substance use disorders experience varying levels of crisis that can, literally, be life or death. The reality is that staff are not always available 24 hours a day to screen all calls to determine which are routine or crisis calls. Chatbots can be used successfully to answer simple calls related to appointments and other treatment-related questions, freeing up staff to engage directly with people in emergency situations or in need of care. .

Chatbots that leverage AI to engage individuals during a crisis or keep them engaged after the crisis can provide an essential lifeline. Today’s chatbot technology is so advanced it feels like you’re talking to a real person, with many patients unable to tell the difference. Because it’s accessible 24/7, it allows us to reach people when they need it most with fewer resources. In addition to immediate crisis intervention, chatbots can be used by providers to check in with patients after the crisis has stabilized in order to re-engage if one has destabilized again.

2. Virtual technology improves patient outcomes

The field of substance use disorder treatment has lagged behind the broader medical community in tracking and responding to patient outcome indicators. In fact, there is currently no clearly defined or agreed-upon consensus on optimal outcomes. For this to be successful, providers need to create baseline outcomes to be achieved while identifying the interventions needed to achieve them. One way to do this is to work with key partners to develop and integrate technology that will better collect and respond to information.

3. Virtual technology expands access

One of the few silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the industry-wide rollout of virtual therapies. The pre-COVID-19 reliance on physical treatment facilities presented unique access challenges for people in need of care who were unable or unwilling to undergo in-person treatment. Microsoft Zoom is now fully HIPAA compliant, enabling better access to counseling services in treatment deserts such as rural communities or in places where access to treatment is unsafe, such as areas with high criminal activity. It also allows patients to seek care in the privacy of their own home and obtain specialist treatment for specific conditions from providers outside their geographic area, which is essential when travel is not possible. .

Fortunately, well-designed virtual services have proven to have positive results compatible with face-to-face treatment in most applications and insurers are fully committed to this new modality, ensuring that it will become a mainstay of modern treatment for drug addiction.

4. Wearable devices provide support

Wearable devices like the Apple Watch and others have revolutionized the health and fitness industries, providing insight into vital data such as heart, respiratory and temperature measurements and helping to encourage wellness habits for minimize the risk of cardiopulmonary diseases.

Likewise, they can be used to monitor addiction by encouraging positive behaviors and spotting indicators that might signal the risk of relapse. They can also be configured for geofencing, to provide warnings if a recovering person ventures near places that are not good for their sobriety. It can also provide reminders and reinforcement of positive behaviors like exercise, meditation, attending meetings, and other stress management tools.

Wearable devices also offer healthcare providers the ability to monitor blood pressure, pulse, and respiration of patients in healthcare settings to enable immediate response in the event of a medical emergency.

5. Simplified documentation systems reduce friction

For providers, the documentation requirements of SUD treatment are enormous, and every minute spent on administrative work is one less minute spent with patients. Unfortunately, most EHRs are not optimized for clinicians in this area, creating workflow inefficiencies and bottlenecks that prevent clinicians from seeing patients.

The industry is striving to revitalize documentation systems with new products that streamline the process to be more efficient and people-centric. This allows clinicians to engage more with patients and helps reduce provider burnout and administrative frustrations, with the goal of deterring them from leaving the company.

6. Digital communities maintain recovery connections

We know both anecdotally and through research that long-term engagement with patients contributes significantly to successful recovery. In fact, extending patient interaction for up to 12 months creates a 60-80% success rate, compared to only 30% for a 90-day hospital stay.

Despite the enormous potential of technology to revolutionize addiction treatment, we must also recognize that there are still significant barriers for providers and patients. First, affordability is an issue for many providers. While large organizations are leveraging technology and achieving better outcomes, greater efficiency and greater patient engagement, the majority of facilities are relatively small and lack the resources – both human and financial – to develop and maintain state-of-the-art technologies.

While some can’t afford it, others simply don’t believe in it, preferring to continue with only the face-to-face treatment options. And, because not all payers support technology transformation, it’s hard for vendors to justify the investment.

On the patient side, lack of access to devices and connectivity can be a barrier. After all, if you’ve lost your job and maybe even your home to addiction, it’s hard to afford a mobile device and internet service. Others may not be tech-savvy or inclined to learn a new tool, especially when they are already facing many other challenges.

Even with these hurdles, we can still have a huge impact by leveraging technology to reach more patients with life-saving treatments. Leveraging technology for better outcomes, increased access to care, and efficiencies is not just an opportunity, but an imperative. With the United States on track to see 150,000 overdose deaths this year, now is the time.

Thomas Britton is the CEO of American Addiction Centers


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