Maintaining contact

Dr. Anthony F. Yacona, adult and child psychiatrist, speaks during an interview using a webcam at Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Addiction treatment services have found a useful new tool to serve their patients — telehealth.

Addiction treatment services in Jefferson County started serving patients remotely, through video or phone calls, when the New York State on PAUSE order was put in place, and have found that remote treatment has some benefits over traditional in-person methods.

With in-person meetings strongly discouraged due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Samaritan Addiction Services began offering telehealth appointments with counselors and found that the number of people who canceled or simply didn’t show up to their appointments dropped. Timothy J. Ruetten, director of community services for Jefferson County, said that some local providers held over 1,000 telehealth appointments with patients over the last month.

Tina M. O’Neil, director of mental health services for Samaritan Medical Center, said that the Office of Addiction Services and Supports, which licenses addiction treatment programs in New York, directed all mental health and addiction treatment centers in the state to suspend all scheduled in-person appointments during the pandemic, although patients in crisis can still be seen.

“Essentially, we don’t turn someone away, and that’s how we’ve been operating every day,” she said. “We are still seeing walk-ins, but everybody else is going through telehealth.”

Mr. Ruetten said that telehealth works best for individual therapies, with one-on-one conversations between the provider and the patient. Addiction treatment services often employ group therapies, which are more difficult to do over the phone or through a video call.

“If you have 10 people in a [video conference], there’s going to be at least one person with a technical issue, someone else may be accidentally muted while they’re talking, so a lot can get in the way of the therapeutic method,” he said.

During a meeting of the Jefferson County Health and Human Services committee last week, Mr. Ruetten said that considering the positive side of telehealth services, providers may want to consider continuing to offer the option to their patients past the end of the pandemic for certain treatments and situations.

Especially in Jefferson County, where transportation can be an issue for those without reliable personal vehicles, and when winter weather can prevent people from traveling safely, he said that an alternative method of treatment that doesn’t require the patient to travel can be very useful.

Ms. O’Neil agreed that telehealth services could be useful once the pandemic ends and in-person meetings are possible again.

“I think there’s a role for telehealth in the future,” she said. “I think that for the person who can’t get in, and would cancel or not show up, we would rather see them in some way than not at all.”

In order for that to happen, the state would need to adjust some of the regulations they have in place for addiction and mental health treatment, which were only temporarily adjusted during the pandemic.

“Previously, you could only do psychiatry through telehealth,” Ms. O’Neil said. “What changed was that any level counselor can do telehealth, and I would like to see that continue.”

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