Prescription Drug Abuse Threatens Successful Telemedicine Program

I’ve written several times about the medical and criminal liabilities caused by unscrupulous doctors over-prescribing pain medication. States like Florida are lousy with what have become commonly referred to as “pill mills,” which often skirt the law and add to the epidemic of prescription drug abuse. Prescription drug overdoses now exceed the number of illegal street drug overdoses in the United States. Oftentimes, drug addicts are able to obtain prescriptions in these pain clinics without even seeing a physician. Now the practices of unscrupulous doctors are threatening to end a technology-based healthcare program that has proven successful in reaching hard-to-serve communities in North Carolina.

Since February of 2011, Mission Hospital in Asheville, N.C., has been using robots to serve the psychiatric needs of more remote emergency departments in rural North Carolina (psychiatrists are scarce in these remote emergency departments, and having a psychiatrist service these communities is expensive and difficult). Using HIPAA-compliant encryption, these robots are able to roam the hospitals’ emergency rooms, interacting with patients and diagnosing their ills. The program has been very successful, and both patients and doctors have been satisfied with the outcomes as well as convenience.

In response to the prescription drug abuse epidemic and the pill mills that make the controlled substances so easy for addicts acquire, Congress is considering two bills that would make it illegal to prescribe controlled substances without a face-to-face consult. This would effectively make the Mission Hospital’s telepsych program illegal, forcing them to end the use of robots to assess patients. HealthLeaders’ Scott Mace did an excellent story on this subject.

The real losers if one of these bills is passed will be the patient communities in isolated, rural areas. They would no longer have access to a psychiatrist. Another loser would be the movement to lower the cost of medicine. The robotic telepsych program is much more inexpensive than it would be to employ full-time psychiatrists in these remote communities; same for having a psychiatrist travel to each of the communities.

We need to address unscrupulous pain clinics as well as online pharmacies, but lets be certain that well-intended legislation doesn’t kill a promising new method for treating isolated patient populations.

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