Brody: Telehealth is changing the game for ADHD patients

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested every facet of our healthcare infrastructure as the nation grapples with unprecedented isolation and stress. With the darkest days behind us (I hope), medical professionals are now exploring public health innovations, forced by the crisis to apply these techniques to help those most in need.

One such innovation is the use of telemedicine to address deficiencies in the treatment of ADHD in adults. Such efforts have shown firsthand that a well-designed virtual care platform has extraordinary potential to ensure accessible, quality care for all patients.

ADHD is a common neuropsychiatric disorder that impairs attention by reducing the brain’s normal ability to inhibit distracting mental and physical impulses, negatively affecting task completion and goal achievement. Those who think of ADHD as a relatively mild disorder are surprised to learn that it shortens lifespan more than smoking or obesity and can lead to career and relationship failure and even suicide.

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There are currently 10.6 to 13.2 million adults with ADHD in the United States — but the number treated is far fewer. One study found that 48 percent of adults who meet criteria for ADHD had not mentioned their symptoms to a healthcare provider. Most who seek professional medical help are treated by a family doctor or general nurse rather than a specialist trained in the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders.

Unfortunately, the quality of psychiatric treatment provided by healthcare professionals is usually inadequate. In one study, only 12.8% of psychiatric services were even rated as “minimally adequate” by general healthcare providers. Additionally, fewer than 30,000 qualified psychiatrists are available to treat ADHD patients in the United States, making access to quality care a formidable challenge.

The problem is twofold: stigma makes patients reluctant to talk to their doctors about ADHD, and when they do, they face a serious shortage of professionals who can provide adequate, let alone quality, care.

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Enter telemedicine. The technology has been available for years but was hardly used before COVID. In 2020, the Biden administration declared a public health emergency, allowing the Department of Health and Human Services to ease restrictions on the use of telemedicine. As long as this remains in effect, authorized providers will be able to perform medical exams and prescribe treatment while patients remain in the safety of their homes.

This is a big deal for the ADHD community. Before the pandemic, stigma and shortages of skilled workers were already daunting barriers to care. COVID added another dissuasive barrier, raising legitimate fears of in-person visits to a clinic or hospital for any reason.

Clinical evidence clearly shows that the single most effective treatment for ADHD is psychostimulant medication. The public health emergency allows certified medical providers to prescribe these drugs without the stress and risk of in-person visits.

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The ability to access quality care virtually is a game changer that will give more Americans struggling with ADHD the help they need. Telehealth options ease the tremendously difficult access to quality treatment and will greatly reduce the alarming number of Americans who forgo potentially life-saving ADHD treatment. Online healthcare platforms enable flexible care for underserved groups and undertreated diagnoses in convenience and security.

Realizing the benefits of telemedicine is perhaps the only silver lining to the dark cloud of COVID, and it would be an added tragedy if those benefits were lost because the public health emergency ended. Such an action would again traumatize our healthcare system and unnecessarily marginalize the patients who need our help most.

David Brody is a psychiatrist and former neurologist in psychiatry at Stanford University. He wrote this for

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