During the COVID-19 crisis, telehealth for chronic pain can make medical care safer and easier for patients who suffer from it. Just a few months ago, this option wasn’t available at all to pain patients who use opiate medications.
But for all patients who suffer from chronic pain—even more than most groups—telemedicine is not just a convenience. In a pandemic, it’s a necessity.
Read on to learn why patients who suffer from chronic pain conditions are at higher risk of catching COVID-19 as well as tips to make the most of telehealth visits.
Why Is Telehealth for Chronic Pain Patients Important?
People who suffer from chronic pain often have weakened immune systems that put them at greater risk of infection. These individuals need to be protected from high-risk areas such as clinic waiting rooms.
There are several reasons why chronic pain patients can have compromised immune systems:
- Many patients are elderly and have one or more chronic conditions.
- Many chronic pain patients get steroid injections. Steroids put them at higher risk for both immunosuppression and influenza.
- Patients on chronic opioid treatment are also at greater risk, with some opioids more than others.
- Chronic pain sufferers often have mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression. These conditions cause stress that can weaken immunity.
- Finally, the virus itself can suppress the immune system in some people, according to the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine.
Pain Management in a Pandemic
In the days before COVID-19, telemedicine was still a new technology. Then clinics had to close their doors because of the pandemic. Overnight, providers began to use video conferencing instead of office visits to see and treat their patients.
But because of the opioid epidemic, chronic pain patients couldn’t use virtual visits if they were taking opioid pain medication.
Before the pandemic, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) didn’t allow pain medicine evaluations or refill visits to be done by telehealth. Chronic pain patients taking pain meds had to report in person for their monthly urine tox screens and medication refills.
After the virus started spreading, these in-person visits put pain patients at a higher risk of infection.
That changed in March. When clinics started closing because of COVID-19, the DEA realized that chronic pain patients would not have safe access to their medications. They eased telehealth restrictions for as long as the pandemic lasts.
The American Medical Association is also advising pain doctors to use telemedicine during the pandemic to reduce the risk for patients and providers.
So for now, even pain patients whose treatment plans included opiate pain medications can use video conferencing. They can sign on through patient portals for a virtual check, even for initial evaluation visits and med refills.
Advantages of Telehealth Visits
So far, these telehealth appointments are popular with patients and providers. Here are a few reasons why:
- Increased patient satisfaction: In a recent survey, 94% to 99% of telehealth patients stated that they were very satisfied with the quality of their visits, and 57% preferred them over office visits. Patients enjoy the convenience of telehealth, and it often costs less.
- Improved treatment effectiveness: Early studies are finding that telemedicine works well for chronic pain. Telehealth visits are just as effective for pain reduction as in-person visits.
- Decreased opioid use: In the above study, fewer patients who received video visits started taking opiates compared to those who had only in-person visits.
- Longer-lasting results: Chronic pain patients who had telehealth visits were twice as likely to report 30% less pain after 12 months as those who had only in-person patient care.
- Better compliance with treatment plans: In one study, telehealth pain patients were more likely to perform home exercises 6 months after beginning treatment (82%) than those who got their care on-site (70%). Their pain and disability scores were also lower.
- Easier access to treatment: Many patients live in remote areas, so they travel long distances to get to their appointments. This travel can be difficult for people who suffer from chronic pain. Telehealth visits make getting the care they need much easier.
- Mental health benefits: Patients who receive their care through video conference visits report significant decreases in anxiety and depression symptoms. What’s more, people who are already depressed often find it hard to leave their homes. With virtual visits, these patients are less likely to miss appointments.
How to Maximize Your Telehealth Visit
Are telehealth visits new to you? Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your virtual appointments.
- Consider scheduling your appointment in the morning. Doctors are often behind schedule later in the day and may not have as much time to visit with you.
- Take a little time before your visit to think about what you need to discuss with your doctor. Write down any concerns that you have or questions you want to ask.
- When you make your appointment, your doctor’s office will send you information about how to log in to the visit. Practice the procedures before your scheduled appointment so you can ask for help if you need it. If you don’t have someone at home who can help you get set up, call your doctor’s office.
- For a video appointment, choose a location ahead of time. You’ll want a quiet, well-lit room with an appropriate background.
- You may find that your home technology is not fast or powerful enough to connect to a video conference. If that’s the case and you can’t get help, ask for other options. Your provider may be okay with doing a phone visit instead.
- Do you have access to an online patient portal? If you’re not sure, ask your doctor. This access will allow you to have your health record on hand to refer to during your visit. It may also be the best way to communicate with your provider between appointments.
- Ask your provider what to do if things don’t go according to plan. Will they call you if they’re going to be late? Should you call the office if you’re unable to connect, or should you send a text? Having a plan will reduce stress if something goes wrong.
- Remember that the first time is the hardest. Once you’ve had a successful telehealth visit, future appointments will be less stressful.
The surge in telemedicine use caused by COVID-19 has benefits for all patients. Video conference visits are effective and convenient, but for pain management patients, telehealth for chronic pain is more than a convenience—it’s a potential lifesaver.
What has your experience been with telehealth for chronic pain?
We’d love to hear about your journey. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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