Digital Health

Lessons from Opioid Use Disorder treatment during the pandemic - why Groups is doubling down on virtual care

When the pandemic hit, I remember sitting at my desk trying to figure out how we would keep our 5,000+ members and 250 employees out of harm's way. I knew we had to find a new way of delivering care in order for our members to continue on their path to recovery from opioid addiction.

We made the difficult decision to shutter our 60+ physical locations and roll out telemedicine to 100% of our member-base. We made this transition in just four days; a clear testament to our amazing team at Groups.

I remember being concerned. After all, this was a big change; a potentially isolating one. Recovering from opioid addiction is hard enough under normal circumstances. How would we continue to foster a sense of community - a core tenant to our treatment model -  without in-person interactions?

It’s now been over a year and a half and we are now serving all of our nearly 9,000 members virtually, with no plans to remove it as an option.

In fact, we are doubling down.

At HLTH today, I just announced that we have launched our own proprietary digital platform, a unified, app-based experience offering the full suite of our services, including self-scheduling, outreach, forms, payment, treatment planning, and group therapy.

The app’s feature/functionality is designed around three goals: First, to remove some of the friction commonly associated with signing up for addiction treatment. Second, to foster a strong sense of community, including having the ability to engage, either with peers or in group therapy. Third, to roll out features that bring the care team even closer to our members, thereby making it easier to deliver timely and personalized care.

The platform also helps reduce administrative burden for our staff, thereby allowing them to spend more time with members. It seamlessly integrates with our EHR and clinicians use it for treatment planning, status visibility, and check-ins. Care teams also have visibility into how their members are interacting with the app and thus, they will be able to coordinate timely interventions. In the long run, this should help us catch members as soon as it looks like their recovery may be in jeopardy.

This is just the beginning. Our team is working steadily to build more functionality to meet our members where they are and make recovery a more achievable endeavor.

How did we get here? It started with listening. From conceptualization to pilot, we made sure to let our members guide the way. In addition to focus groups, we ran 4 months of testing with the first wave of participants, 400 people who registered through the digital app, collecting feedback along the way.

One member told us when referring to the app, “You live in such a disorganized way through addiction that it’s refreshing to have some things a little simpler.” Another noted the immediacy of the experience: “I think this app is great. The best thing about Groups is they are ready to help people right away.”

The truth is, I could never have anticipated that this shift to telemedicine would fundamentally change how our members engage in their recovery care.

We learned we can serve our members virtually without sacrificing our outcomes. In fact, we measured our outcomes after our shift to telemedicine and learned that after 5 months, we saw no major differences in our retention rates, abstinence rates, or attendance rates. In the coming months, we will be publishing these findings as part of a collaboration with UCLA.

We learned that our members liked the convenience of telemedicine. From an internal survey, 87% of our members felt as or more supported through telemedicine treatment

Telemedicine has allowed us to reach members in traditionally underserved, often rural areas that have been disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic. In fact, 29% of our members today live in a county where we don’t have a physical location. Prior to the pandemic, that number was near zero. As a result of this expanded reach, our membership has increased by 66% since the start of the pandemic. That’s thousands of additional lives saved during an epidemic that has only intensified since COVID-19 first emerged.

Now, that’s not to say that virtual treatment is for everyone. For those who want or need to be in person, we will continue to have in-person treatment options at our 80+ physical locations across 14 states. Even for those who prefer in-person treatment, we believe the app will still enhance their experience. After all, recovery is a commitment that goes far beyond the 1-hour per week group therapy window we have here at Groups.

In the addiction vertical, we often see companies that do care delivery really well but struggle with digital tools. We also see apps that are complements to care, but may not provide a personal touch or integrate with the providers of direct care. It’s hard to find an entity that marries the two.

Our digital platform is designed to do just that.

Colleen Nicewicz is the CEO at Groups Recover Together. She is an experienced leader, strategist, and healthcare advocate. Driven to help people in need, she takes pride in providing increased access to quality care for those struggling with opioid abuse disorder. As a CEO, her goals include accelerating expansion across the United States, creating meaningful community relationships, and driving program membership. In addition to her primary job functions, Colleen has been recognized by her peers for her extraordinary commitment to change the lives and norms for those in behavioral health. In 2021, Colleen received a Gold Stevie Award in the Achievement in Growth category.

The editorial staff had no role in this post's creation.