CHICAGO — A smartphone 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 smartphones 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 say the immediacy of smartphone-based help could make them a useful tool in fighting relapse.
The study was published online Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.
It involved 271 adults followed for a year after in-patient treatment for alcoholism at one of several U.S. centers in the Midwest and Northeast. They were randomly assigned to get a sober smartphone 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.
"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 smartphone 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 smartphone group and decreased slightly in the others.