Tildabeth Doscher, MD, far left, poses with other Phoenix House volunteers on Long Island.

Treating Substance Use Disorder During the Pandemic

Published June 8, 2020

story based on news release by ellen goldbaum

Tildabeth Doscher, MD, clinical assistant professor of family medicine, was among the physicians who answered the call of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo when he asked for health care workers to volunteer in New York City during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

“There is a concern that the opioid epidemic is losing its voice in the midst of the COVID pandemic. The opioid epidemic has not disappeared … in fact, it seems that it may be worsening in the midst of the despair engendered by the current state of emergency. ”
Clinical assistant professor of family medicine and director of UB’s addiction medicine fellowship

Tildabeth Doscher, MD

“I said I was willing to do anything, happy to provide support in whatever way was needed,” says Doscher, director of UB’s addiction medicine fellowship and an addiction medicine physician with UBMD Family Medicine.

She volunteered for three weeks — from April 12 to May 3. The experience allowed her to bring to the pandemic’s epicenter in New York City a set of skills for a vulnerable population that has seen many critical, life-saving supports disappear as a result of the lockdown during the pandemic.

Tragic Death Spurs Action

Even before heading to the city to volunteer, Doscher had been thinking about how to address the issue of people with substance use disorder in rehabilitation facilities who might have the virus.

On March 24, she was discussing the issue on a conference call with medical directors at the state’s rehab facilities, including Douglas Bass, MD, medical director of Phoenix House, one of the state’s largest. Tragically, he passed away five days later from COVID-19.

“The combination of Doug’s death and the COVID-19 virus impacting staff and patients in increasing numbers left Phoenix House struggling,” Doscher says. “Because of Doug’s death, I offered to devote my volunteer effort as interim medical director for Phoenix House.”

Guidelines Shifted as Understanding Evolved

Upon arrival in New York City on April 12, Doscher says she was struck by the size and complexity of Phoenix House, which has more than 200 residents in programs throughout New York City and Long Island.

Even under the best circumstances, she says, working with people with substance use disorder presents many challenges.

“Adding the dark unknown of the virus magnified the usual challenges of providing treatment for this population,” Doscher says. “The congregate setting made social distancing a near impossible task. Space and resources were limited. Staff were ill or, because of fears engendered by the virus, declining to come to work.”

While she was there, some residents were put into isolation, some were admitted to the hospital and some who had been hospitalized returned to Phoenix House.

“COVID-19 presented us with continual puzzle pieces in trying to manage people in a congregate setting,” Doscher says. “It was hard being the person that was being turned to for guidance and expertise in a situation where expertise simply does not yet exist. It was like building a plane while flying it, and not being a pilot. The official New York State and CDC guidelines were shifting sands as the understanding of the illness evolved, so the rules of the game were changing daily.”

Lockdown Exacerbated Sense of Isolation

At the same time, the pervasiveness of the issues caused by COVID-19 seemed to overwhelm the needs of those with other conditions.

“There is a concern that the opioid epidemic is losing its voice in the midst of the COVID pandemic,” Doscher says. “The opioid epidemic has not disappeared … in fact, it seems that it may be worsening in the midst of the despair engendered by the current state of emergency.”

Doscher notes that, unfortunately, overdose rates have increased since the virus outbreak.

“Partly this is because people are using substances alone, and there is nobody to supply Narcan or call an ambulance or get someone to the hospital,” she says.

Social distancing restrictions are also negatively affecting patients with substance use disorder, she says. The outpatient sites she works at in Buffalo started providing patients with take-home bottles of methadone so they don’t have to come to clinic. That bothered some of them.

“A good number of people want to keep coming to the clinic on a daily basis,” Doscher says. “I think part of this is that the clinic has become a touchstone in their lives; it is how many patients make contact and connection with the world outside of themselves. When we take that away, we take away a sense of self, and this can be debilitating.”

“People with substance use disorder are often tormented by the isolation and lack of connection that is already inherent in their lives. This situation has exacerbated the sense of isolation that already brands their psyches.”

Telemedicine Provides a Silver Lining

On the other hand, Doscher observed that because of the pandemic, the obstacles that used to prevent the wide use of telemedicine for treating substance use disorder have begun to disappear.

Typically, she says, access to treatment was limited because of a lack of providers or simply the lack of transportation.

“Because the rules have not only relaxed, and telehealth is now being encouraged, many of those obstacles are being erased,” she notes. “This opens up the possibility that treatment for substance use disorder can extend beyond the current 10 percent of those who now receive treatment. Increased access would be a godsend for many of those struggling with this illness.”

While in New York, Doscher also began working as an attending physician in a telemedicine “instant access clinic” for people with opioid use disorder that was established during the pandemic at Bellevue Hospital.

The goal was to offer access without barriers for people with opioid use disorder and to begin treating their illness appropriately, with the medication that has proved to be life-saving — buprenorphine.

Patients Often Started Treatment at Rikers

Doscher says that many of the clinic’s patients were started on buprenorphine while in jail on Rikers Island.

“Rikers is unique in the fact that it is a Department of Corrections facility that actually provides treatment for opioid use disorder,” she says. “Because of the COVID situation, people are often being discharged from Rikers more rapidly than they have been in the past.”

The clinic at Bellevue provides continuity of care for opioid use disorder and connects patients to longer term follow-up substance use disorder, psychiatric and general medical care.

“With the increased access that accompanies expansion of telemedicine comes increased opportunities for addiction medicine physicians that are not constrained by a geographic divide between provider and patient,” says Doscher, who will continue both as the medical director at Phoenix House and as a one-day-per-week volunteer attending physician for the clinic at Bellevue.

“This is all remote, part of the open door that the current crisis has provided,” she says.

Grateful She Was Able to Participate in Effort

Now back in Buffalo, Doscher feels only gratitude that she was able to help out.

“I feel incredibly fortunate that UB gave me the opportunity to experience this unfathomable moment in the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States,” she says.

“It was good to feel that there was some small part I could play in helping relieve the shock and confusion and illness that was engendered by this microscopic foe, especially in the context of helping to care for a patient population that I feel honored to serve.”