Report: Most physicians worry telehealth made them miss signs of drug abuse during the pandemic

Hydrocodone opioid pills
At least 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2020. (Getty/smartstock)

Telehealth offered numerous benefits to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing access to care when in-person visits weren’t safe or feasible for many. But a new report shows providers worry that virtual visits allowed signs of drug abuse to slip by unnoticed.

In a report from Quest Diagnostics released Monday, 67% of the over 500 primary care physicians surveyed said they fear they missed signs of drug abuse in their patients during the pandemic.

And nearly all of them were prescribing those often-misused drugs—a whopping 97% reported prescribing opioids within 6 months of taking the survey.

Their concerns extend beyond the pandemic into telemedicine use today. Only 50% of physicians said they were confident they could recognize signs of drug misuse during telehealth visits, a far cry from the 91% that said the same of in-person patient interactions.

Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. escalated during the pandemic. At least 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2020 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up nearly 30% from 2019.

RELATED: Drug overdoses surged during the pandemic. Providers are thinking outside the box to combat the opioid crisis

Fentanyl deaths made up the bulk of all drug overdose deaths, rising 43% in 2020.

Most physicians (78%) in the Quest survey said they worry patients will take illicit fentanyl if they can’t get their hands on prescription medications, and 86% worry more people will die from fentanyl than prescribed opioids.

Along with the isolation and fear of the pandemic came a rise in mental health concerns.

Ninety-four percent of primary care physicians said they saw more patients experiencing stress, anxiety and other mental health issues during the pandemic. What’s more, they worry that the increase in mental health issues will impact prescription drug misuse.

In a 2020 GoodRx survey, 15% of respondents said they were taking medications for anxiety or depression that they had not been prescribed.

RELATED: GoodRx: COVID-19 worsening behavioral health conditions

But Quest’s data indicates that just because a physician thinks they can spot patient signs of drug misuse doesn’t always mean they do.

While 88% of the physicians reported feeling confident they could identify patients at risk for drug abuse, nearly half of all patients tested by Quest in 2020 showed signs of drug abuse.

The report said this signals the need for more concrete tools like clinical drug testing to supplement physician counseling.

"Physicians serve a crucial role in reducing opioid misuse and addiction, but it requires having the right tools and processes in place to help identify at-risk patients," said Creighton Drury, CEO of Partnership to End Addiction, in a summary of the report. "This has never been more important, as we continue to experience the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and are faced with an increasingly dire opioid crisis in the U.S."

Several digital health startups are making efforts to tackle addiction.

WorkIt Health recently bagged $118 million for its virtual drug and alcohol addiction clinic. Other organizations, including Groups Recover Together and Quit Genius, have gained tens of millions more in capital for their own virtual rehabilitation services.