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This article is the authors’ final published version in Substance Abuse: Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, Volume 16, Issue 1, August 2021, Article number 60.

The published version is available at Copyright © Alexander et al.


RESEARCH OBJECTIVE: The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted healthcare delivery worldwide with likely negative effects on people who use opioids (PWUO). This scoping review of the original research literature describes the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare delivery for PWUO and identifies gaps in the literature.

METHODS: This scoping review of the original research literature maps the available knowledge regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare delivery for PWUO. We utilized the methodology developed by the Joanna Briggs Institute for scoping reviews, and content analyses methodology to characterize the current state of the literature.

RESULTS: Of the 14 included studies, administrative database (n = 11), cross-sectional (n = 1) or qualitative (n = 2) studies demonstrated service gaps (n = 7), patient/provider experiences (n = 3), and patient outcomes for PWUO (n = 4). In March 2020, healthcare utilization dropped quickly, sharply increasing only for reasons of opioid overdose by May 2020. Service gaps existed in accessing treatment for new patients during the pandemic due to capacity and infrastructure limits. Physicians reported difficulty referring patients to begin an outpatient opioid treatment program due to increased restrictions in capacity and infrastructure. Patients also reported uncertainty about accessing outpatient treatment, but that telehealth initiation of buprenorphine increased access to treatment from home. Disproportionate increases in overdose rates among African Americans were reported in two studies, with differences by race and gender not examined in most studies. Fatal overdoses increased 60% in African Americans during the pandemic, while fatal overdoses in Non-Hispanic White individuals decreased.

CONCLUSIONS: In summary, this beginning evidence demonstrates that despite early reluctance to use the healthcare system, opioid overdose-related use of healthcare increased throughout the pandemic. Service delivery for medications to treat OUD remained at or above pre-pandemic levels, indicating the ability of telehealth to meet demand. Yet, racial disparities that existed pre-pandemic for PWUO are intensifying, and targeted intervention for high-risk groups is warranted to prevent further mortality. As the pandemic progresses, future research must focus on identifying and supporting subgroups of PWUO who are at heightened risk for experiencing negative outcomes and lack of access to care.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

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