App helps American boozers to stay sober


A smartphone app for recovering alcoholics that includes a panic button and sounds an alert when they get too close to bars helped keep some on the wagon, researchers found.

The sobriety app they studied joins a host of others that serve as electronic shoulder angels, featuring a variety of options aimed at preventing alcoholics and drug addicts from relapsing.

Adults released from inpatient alcoholism treatment centers who got free “sober smartphones” reported fewer drinking days and more overall abstinence than those who received standard follow-up support.

The results were based on patients’ self-reporting on whether they resumed drinking — a potential limitation to the study. Still, addiction experts say the immediacy of smartphone-based help could make the devices a useful tool in fighting relapse.

The study was published online Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.

It involved 271 adults followed for a year after inpatient treatment for alcoholism at one of several U.S. centers. They were randomly assigned to receive either a sober smartphone app for eight months plus a typical follow-up regimen, such as referral to a self-help group.

The app includes a feature asking periodic questions by text or voice mail 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 it is pushed. It also offers links to relaxation techniques to calm the patient while awaiting 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. Gustafson, who’s among the developers of the app, nicknamed A-CHESS, said it is being commercially developed but 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.

Smartphone patients also had fewer “risky” drinking days per month — defined as more than four drinks over two hours for men and over three for women — than the other group. The average was almost 1½ days for the smartphone group versus almost three days for the others.

Only about 25 percent of Americans who are treated for alcoholism 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 of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who wasn’t involved in the study.

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