By Andrew M. Seaman
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A mobile app aimed at keeping people recovering from alcohol abuse sober appears to cut down on the number of days they drink, according to a new study.
More recovering alcohol abusers also reported total abstinence from drinking when using the app, which has guided relaxation techniques and alerts users when they're near bars and other places that may be risky to their recoveries.
"The system we have is the product of about 30 years of research," David Gustafson, the app's developer, told Reuters Health.
Gustafson is also the study's lead author from the Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He and his colleagues write in JAMA Psychiatry that only about one in four people recovering from alcohol abuse abstains from drinking alcohol during the first year of recovery.
Past studies have found that continuing treatment for alcoholism is linked with better outcomes, but there are few options available to people leaving rehabilitation centers, they write.
"Unfortunately most people get nothing," Susan Foster told Reuters Health.
Foster is an expert on addiction at CASAColumbia, a New York-based organization focused on understanding substance abuse. She was not involved with the new research.
"This isn't replacing something," she said. "This is trying to find ways to help patients manage their disease going forward."
For the new study, the researchers randomly assigned 349 adults leaving rehabilitation centers for alcoholism to one of two groups.
For one group of 179 people, counselors were told to provide them with normal post-rehabilitation treatment.
The other group of 170 was also provided normal treatment, but also received a smartphone with the app, called the Addiction-Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System (A-CHESS), for eight months.
In addition to the relaxation and alert features, the app includes a "panic" button to connect people with their supporters and other app users. It also has games to help distract people from their cravings.
Participants in each group periodically reported how many days within the past month they engaged in "risky drinking," defined as drinking more than three or four alcoholic drinks within a two-hour period.
After a year, the participants in the group that didn't get the app reported about three days of risky drinking in the past month, compared to about one day among the group that had the app.
What's more, about 52 percent of the people in the app group remained alcohol-free at the end of four, eight and 12 months, compared to about 40 percent of people in the non-app group.
The researchers write that A-CHESS may be a cost-conscious intervention, because using the app cost about $597 per patient during the study. That cost could fall as more people get smartphones and data plans.
They also say that alcohol abuse and dependence costs the U.S. an estimated $184.6 billion per year.
Foster said the study had limitations. Those include the patients reporting their own drinking habits and most of the participants being white.
"We need a lot more research to understand for whom (the app) will work best and under what circumstances," she said.
But she added that she was happy to see the study. "I think it's certainly worth a lot more attention and exploration," she said.
Gustafson said the app is already being used by over a dozen treatment agencies and by the Department of Veterans Affairs with success. He said his salary is not directly linked to the commercial success of the app.
"It's being commercialized, but we'll continue to do research around these kind of things for awhile," he said.
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1dvVMua JAMA Psychiatry, online March 26, 2014.