Only 1 in 5 U.S. adults with opioid use disorder gets treatment

WASHINGTON – The United States is facing its deadliest drug epidemic ever, and new research sheds light on a distressing reality—many people struggling with opioid use disorder aren’t getting the treatment they desperately need. The study, published in JAMA Network Open, paints a concerning picture. In 2021, only approximately a third of adults with opioid use disorder received any form of substance use treatment, and only 1 in 5 received medications to address their opioid use disorder. Researchers say this is a massive treatment gap that needs urgent attention.

Even more disheartening is that certain groups faced significant barriers to accessing medication. Black adults, women, the unemployed, and those living in rural areas were disproportionately less likely to receive this crucial treatment.

Interestingly, people receiving substance use treatment via telehealth were 38 times more likely to receive medications for opioid use disorder compared to those not utilizing telehealth services. Researchers say this highlights the potential of telehealth in bridging the gap and providing accessible care to those in need.

Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, emphasized the importance of these medications, stating, “Medications for opioid use disorder are safe and effective. They help sustain recovery and prevent overdose deaths. Failing to use safe and lifesaving medications is devastating for people denied evidence-based care. What’s more, it perpetuates opioid use disorder, prolongs the overdose crisis, and exacerbates health disparities in communities across the country.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 110,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses in 2022, with the majority of these deaths attributed to opioids. In 2021 alone, an estimated 2.5 million individuals aged 18 years or older in the U.S. grappled with opioid use disorder.

Dr. Wilson Compton, Deputy Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and senior author of the study, highlighted the urgency of the situation, saying, “More than 80,000 people are dying of a drug overdose involving an opioid every year, while safe and effective medicines to treat opioid use disorder are sitting on the shelf unused. This study adds to the growing evidence that telehealth services are an important strategy that could help us bridge this gap, supporting the delivery of safe, effective, and lifesaving care for people with opioid use disorder.”