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Study: Sober smart phone app aids alcoholics’ recovery

  • This screen grab provided by the Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies (CHESS) at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., shows the A-CHESS app. The app, developed for recovering alcoholics, includes a panic button and sounds an alert when they get too close to taverns. The app is being commercially developed and is not yet available. (AP Photo/Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies)

    This screen grab provided by the Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies (CHESS) at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., shows the A-CHESS app. The app, developed for recovering alcoholics, includes a panic button and sounds an alert when they get too close to taverns. The app is being commercially developed and is not yet available. (AP Photo/Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies)

  • This screen grab provided by the Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies (CHESS) at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., shows the A-CHESS app. The app, developed for recovering alcoholics, includes a panic button and sounds an alert when they get too close to taverns. The app is being commercially developed and is not yet available. (AP Photo/Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies)

    This screen grab provided by the Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies (CHESS) at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., shows the A-CHESS app. The app, developed for recovering alcoholics, includes a panic button and sounds an alert when they get too close to taverns. The app is being commercially developed and is not yet available. (AP Photo/Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies)

  • This screen grab provided by the Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies (CHESS) at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., shows the A-CHESS app. The app, developed for recovering alcoholics, includes a panic button and sounds an alert when they get too close to taverns. The app is being commercially developed and is not yet available. (AP Photo/Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies)
  • This screen grab provided by the Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies (CHESS) at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., shows the A-CHESS app. The app, developed for recovering alcoholics, includes a panic button and sounds an alert when they get too close to taverns. The app is being commercially developed and is not yet available. (AP Photo/Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies)

A smart phone app for recovering alcoholics that includes a panic button and sounds an alert when they get too close to taverns helped keep some on the wagon, researchers who developed the tool found.

The sober app studied joins a host of others that serve as electronic shoulder angels, featuring a variety of options for trying to prevent alcoholics and drug addicts from relapsing.

Adults released from in-patient alcoholism treatment centers who got free sober smart phone apps reported fewer drinking days and more overall abstinence than those who got the usual follow-up support.

The results were based on patients’ self-reporting on whether they resumed drinking, a potential limitation. Still, addiction experts said the immediacy of smart phone-based help could make them a useful tool in fighting relapse.

Mark Wiitala, 32, took part in the study and said the app helped save his life. He said the most helpful feature allowed him to connect to a network of peers who’d gone through the same recovery program. The app made them immediately accessible for an encouraging text or phone call when he needed an emotional boost.

“It’s an absolutely amazing tool,” said Wiitala, of Middlesex County, Mass. He said he’s continued to use it even though the study ended.

The study was published online yesterday in JAMA Psychiatry.

It involved 271 adults followed for a year after inpatient treatment for alcoholism at one of several U.S. centers in the Midwest and Northeast. They were randomly assigned to get a sober smart phone app for eight months plus usual follow-up treatment – typically referral to a self-help group – or usual follow-up alone.

The app includes a feature asking periodic questions by text or voicemail about how patients are doing. If enough answers seem worrisome, the system automatically notifies a counselor who can then offer help.

The panic button can be programmed to notify peers who are nearest to the patient when the button is pushed. It also offers links to relaxation techniques to calm the patient while waiting for help.

“We’ve been told that makes a big difference,” said David Gustafson, the lead author and director of the Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He’s among developers of the app, nicknamed A-CHESS after the center. Gustafson said it is being commercially developed and is not yet available.

Differences in abstinence from drinking between the two groups didn’t show up until late in the study. At eight months, 78 percent of the smart phone users reported no drinking within the previous 30 days, versus 67 percent of the other patients. At 12 months, those numbers increased slightly in the smart phone group and decreased slightly in the others.

Smart phone patients also had fewer “risky” drinking days per month than the others. The study average was almost 1½ days for the smart phone group versus almost three days for the others. Risky drinking was defined as having more than four drinks over two hours for men and more than three drinks for women. One drink was a 12-ounce bottle of beer, 5-ounce glass of wine or 1½-ounce shot of liquor.

The results for smart phone users were comparable to what has been seen with standard follow-up counseling or anti-addiction medication, said Daniel Falk, a scientist-administrator at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which helped pay for the study.

He noted that alcohol abuse affects about 18 million Americans and that only about 25 percent who get treatment are able to remain abstinent for at least a year afterward.

Scientists are looking at new ways to try to improve those statistics.

“There is increasing excitement regarding technology-based tools in substance use treatment, prevention and education,” said Dr. Gail Basch, director of the addiction medicine program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Basch, who wasn’t involved in the study, said proven methods for helping prevent relapse include patient monitoring and support from family and peers.

“A stand-alone mobile app may not be the answer, but one can see how it could fit in nicely,” she said. “A real-time tool, as well as reminders throughout the day, could be very helpful for a recovering brain.”

As a recovering alcoholic with 8 years of sobriety carefully tucked under my belt, I find this app very intriguing. I see it as a very useful tool for the alcoholic coming out of an intense recovery program, be it out or inpatient. The ability to "hook up" with the people you went through recovery with can be an incredible tool because you will be talking with people who have been down in the trenches getting just as dirty as you had to get to begin to recover.They are frequently people who are easier to listen to. Beware however, they too are in recovery and may not survive their own battle. This can be disheartening to the newbie and also dangerous as it is easy to get tangled up in their world under the guise of saving them. Save yourself first (think of the oxygen masks in airplanes). I notice that there are several resources that are available that would be helpful to the person who has been out on their own for awhile. I still get discouraged and would love someone to talk to. Can this be made available to other alcoholics, not just ones coming out of a 28 day program? While you are fine tuning this program, it would be nice if there was a way for the user hear daily affirmations. Also, I notice that you have a button for weekly meetings. I assume that this refers to AA. This is a good idea, as far as it goes. Many alcoholics have found that AA just doesn't fit and if it doesn't fit, it's not going to help. There are numerous other programs out there that Recovery Institutions refuse to acknowledge believing that AA is the only way to go. I believe that this does the alcoholic/addict a dis-service in that it restricts them to only AA when something else may suit the user better. May I suggest that within the scope of meetings, if there is something else available, to include that in the information you provide the user. I am so glad to see items like this in the news that shows people working on this disease because it is real and deserves the time, money and energy to help people who need it. The more items like this that hit the news, the more the general public will get educated and boy do they need to be educated when it comes to alcoholism and other addictions. Too much of what is in the news, continues to support the ignorance making a topic that should be discussed comfortably on a daily basis by now still regulated to the secret in the closet. Thank you for doing something potentially life saving. Every little bit helps and I think this is a big step toward coming up with solutions.

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