Virtual Treatment for Substance Use Disorders: A New Method of Treatment for a New Era

virtual treatment centers

Jason Batten, LPC, ALPS, AADC, MLADCPrior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare environment was experiencing somewhat of a shift toward services provided via HIPAA-compliant telehealth technology. Since the COVID-19 pandemic happened, a speedy and seismic shift toward telehealth services has occurred. There have been many benefits and some challenges that have happened because of this trend toward virtually delivered services.

One challenge is that the technology is still new to some providers, and newer technologies are developing so fast that it can be hard for healthcare providers to keep up, especially with increased patient loads such as in behavioral health. However, there are many benefits for clients as the healthcare environment moves toward these technology-enabled distance treatment services.

Virtual Services Are Accessible

One of the primary benefits, and one that should be welcomed by us all as we continue to experience a substance use epidemic, is that treatment services are more easily available to people in need of care. People can receive all their services, from admission through treatment, and even discharge planning and after-care, from the comfort of their own home. Transportation barriers are alleviated as people log in to secure links for video conferencing software and attend treatment from their laptop, smartphone, or other device.

Virtual Services Are Effective

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the research was clear: telehealth services, in most cases, were equally effective to in-person services. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (2020) summarizes the research concluding that there is a substantial body of studies that prove telehealth is at least as effective, if not better, than in-person care, and that telehealth can improve patient satisfaction with care. So, the idea that in-person services are more effective has not been shown in scientific research to be true. In fact, the opposite has been shown to be the case. Virtual services are very effective.

Virtual Services are Preferred

People who use behavioral health services often have a preference for virtually delivered treatment. A survey of 4,000 Americans found that more than 80% of respondents preferred telehealth for their behavioral health care needs (Behavioral Health Business, 2022). Virtual care allows clients to have a greater pool of options to choose from for their needs both in terms of providers and facilities. When services are provided in a manner that aligns with consumer preferences, everyone wins.

Virtual Services are Payor-Friendly

Most health insurance payors are covering telehealth services. Medicare is also beginning to push for more telehealth services, as are most state Medicaid programs. Some commercial payors are even beginning to pay for asynchronous (i.e., when patients are able to contact you outside of a formal appointment) text-based therapy. There is less available research on text-based therapy, but there is some evidence showing that this method can also be effective. Payment for text-based services is less common than synchronous video or telephone services, but the growth of text-based services shows just how much interest payors have in telehealth.

Overcoming the Barriers

There are potential barriers to the delivery of virtual care. One barrier is the implementation of the technology.  Utilization of video-conferencing software may be new for healthcare providers and consumers alike. Getting the workflow setup in a way that is convenient for both provider and consumer takes thought and effort. However, providers that commit to the decision to launch telehealth services are often able to overcome any barriers they encounter and find that the benefits far outweigh the costs.

At kathy ireland® Recovery Centers, our goal is to make sure that no one is outside the reach of qualified care for substance use disorders (SUDs). Therefore, we offer a telemedicine option for those with SUDs. Learn more at