In 2021, the opioid overdose epidemic in the U.S. reached a record high, with more than 100,000 deaths. Entrepreneurs aiming to curb the trend with addiction tech—a market which they estimate could hit $42 billion annually in the nation—recognize that the time is ripe for disruption, as the majority of individuals dealing with substance use issues experience barriers to treatment access.
The benefits of tech integration with treatment options are often lost on those in need, and startup analysts as well as clinicians agree that frilly Silicon Valley tech is not suitable for addressing the needs of those who are financially challenged, unstably housed, or, most importantly, victims of an increasingly expansive digital divide.
“The people who are really struggling, who really need access to substance use treatment, don’t have 5G and a smartphone,” said Dr. Aimee Moulin, a Professor and Behavioral Health Director for UC Davis Health’s Emergency Medicine Department. “I just worry that as we start to rely on these tech-heavy therapy options, we’re just creating a structure where we really leave behind the people who actually need the most help.” High-level investment in addiction tech tends to ignore efforts to improve treatment access for the less privileged, according to Moulin.
A growing roster of startups toying with varying treatment and delivery methods shows promise for eventual success with underserved populations, though. Addiction telehealth, for instance, has made financial strides in the past year. Quit Genius, which provides virtual addiction treatment for opioid, nicotine, and alcohol dependence, collected $64 million from investors last summer, while virtual prescriber of medication-assisted treatment Workit Health raised an impressive $118 million. Other startups featuring similar telehealth and prescribing models, including Ophelia, Bicycle Health, and Boulder Care, have also earned hefty investments since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.