WASHINGTON—Telehealth services became invaluable to millions of Americans struggling with mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, but bad actors are tarnishing the reputation of the expanded telehealth industry by over-prescribing stimulants like Adderall. A new report from the Center for Data Innovation calls for reforms to expand legitimate telehealth services and rein in bad actors.
“The lesson of the pandemic is that we need to expand access to legitimate telehealth services but rein in bad actors,” said Morgan Stevens, a research assistant with the Center for Data Innovation, who authored the new report. “The expansion of telehealth has been a boon in the pandemic. More patients can access medical care, and there are fewer barriers to receiving mental health treatment. Policymakers should enact reforms to ensure that continues while also cracking down on the digital pill mills that overprescribe stimulants to people who don’t need them.”
In response to the pandemic, federal and state policymakers enacted regulatory changes that let medical providers offer more remote services than ever before. That proved to be a mixed blessing. The Center’s report details how the changes led to massive growth in the telehealth industry, as traditional healthcare providers created or expanded their telehealth services and start-up telehealth companies began offering comprehensive online treatments for conditions that they previously could not treat remotely—including prescribing stimulant medications to treat ADHD, which accelerated a trend that had already begun to build in previous decades.
The report also examines how, in the pursuit of rapid growth, some telehealth companies—including Cerebral, Done Health, and Klarity—have exploited advertising rules to promote stimulant drugs on online. Examples of the advertisements that the companies have posted on social media and search platforms are included in the report.
The Center provides a series of recommendations to boost the continued development of high-quality telehealth services and the protection of patients from malpractice by providers that don’t adhere to appropriate standards of care:
- Make permanent the temporary regulatory changes that have enabled telehealth to flourish.
- Allow providers to practice across state lines.
- Reform federal and state databases and reporting requirements.
- Have law enforcement agencies regularly audit telehealth platforms.
- Clarify and improve FTC and FDA guidelines for advertising by telehealth platforms offering controlled substances.
“Given the benefits of telehealth services, policymakers should continue the regulatory changes that allowed companies to flourish,” said Stevens. “But they should ensure that remote patients receive the same standard of care as they would during in-person appointments.”