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Telehealth Can Connect the Dots Between Chronic Pain, Mental Health

A New Jersey clinic is using telehealth to monitor the daily activities - and mental health - of patients being treated for chronic pain.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Telehealth advocates have argued that a connected health platform can help providers improve care management for patients with chronic pain. A New Jersey-based pain management and neurology clinic is putting that idea to the test.

Relievus Pain Management, based in Cherry Hill, N.J., and serving a wide swath of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, has added a telemedicine platform to its list of treatments, which include medical marijuana, stem cell therapy, Ketamine infusion and electromedical therapy. The virtual care service enables the 20-site clinic’s 28 providers to monitor patients at home every day and change care plans as needed.

More importantly, the telehealth platform, developed by a Philadelphia-based startup called NeuroFlow, gives providers insight into the patient’s mental health – a key indicator of care plan adherence and an underlying cause for opioid addiction issues.

“We used to focus on one thing – the patient’s physical health,” says Young J. Lee, MD, a pain specialist and anesthesiologist and the clinic’s managing partner. “We used to document (a patient’s mental status), but we didn’t do anything about it. Now we’re paying attention to mental health and we’re realizing that pain is not just a physical issue. This is a physical and mental issue.”

Relievus integrated the NeuroFlow platform roughly three months ago. Participating patients are now able to download an app on their smartphone or mobile device, on which they log in each day to fill out an online questionnaire about their physical and mental health. On the other end, their care provider logs onto a dashboard each day to review the patient’s status and make changes to the care plan if needed.

Lee says the online platform is a vast improvement over the old method, in which providers asked patients to fill out a paper or tablet-based survey during their monthly visit. Patients were asked to think back over the previous month and try to describe their experiences – from which the provider would then have to decide whether to alter the care plan or keep going.

“Now we’re able to see on a daily basis how each patient is doing,” Lee says.

When factoring mental health into the treatment plan, that’s important. By listening to how each patient goes through his or her day, and how pain affects that daily routine, providers can begin to understand how pain affects the patient’s mental health. This, in turn, can lead to a better understanding of issues like stress, depression and addiction.

Lee says the mHealth platform is customizable, so that he can work with NeuroFlow’s technical team to select questions that address a specific condition. He anticipates modeling the platform to not only treat chronic pain, but PTSD, alcohol and drug abuse, smoking and other issues in which mental health and physical discomfort collide.

“This is not the final product,” he says. “There’s a lot more that can be done.”

And as healthcare providers, public health agencies and federal and state governments pour time and money into telehealth and mHealth treatments to combat opioid addiction and substance abuse, it’s important to remember that these platforms are still evolving.

As the technology has only been in use for three months, Lee says it will take time to gather enough data to determine its effectiveness. But that’s what mHealth can do – give providers information about their patients’ daily activities, including their mental health. Over time, they’ll have enough data to identify trends, causes and effects.

“This is a great tool,” Lee says of the mHealth platform. “We now have the chance to treat the whole patient.”

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