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Smartphones to be used in aiding treatment and relapse prevention

August 20, 2012
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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In a world where technology is constantly morphing the way individuals live their lives, researchers have developed mobile apps to deliver tested treatment and relapse prevention tools through smartphones.  

The scholars that make up the research team are centered at the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison and Dartmouth College.  A $3.5 million grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has been awarded to support this work by the Center for Health Enhancement System Studies (CHESS) at the UW-Madison.

“There’s been, at UW-Madison, a long running effort to use technology as a way to relieve suffering from people who were going through difficult health situations,” Dhavan Shah, Maier-Bascom Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Scientific Director of the grant, explained.

He went on to point out that the motto of CHESS is “No one should suffer twice”, with the first being the health issue and the second being the difficulty in securing support or care.

The new technology this group has been designing combines two technologies, Addiction-CHESS (A-CHESS), along with a Therapeutic Education System (TES).  TES employs cognitive behavioral therapies for addiction treatment, while A-CHESS uses a suite of mobile tools for relapse prevention.

Shah then discussed the various features that the A-CHESS side of the technology will provide.  First, there is the social support tool that is used to connect individuals who are in recovery essentially in a circle of support.  They can log into message boards to say “I slipped a little bit today” or “I used...” or “I drank…” and people going through similar circumstances can also share their ups and downs and offer support.

Another feature is what they call “the panic button”.  The panic button is there if patients are feeling that need or craving; they can push the panic button and within a few minutes, they will receive a phone call from a counselor who will talk directly with them.

Shah also described a geotracker that will aid in relapse prevention because it is designed to send out a notification when patients get near a location where they used to pick up drugs or hang out at a certain bar.  The notification will make them aware that they should stay away from that area. 

Prerecorded videos of the patient, family member or close friend will also be loaded on the smartphone.  These videos will be helpful, again, when patients are having a hard time or thinking about going back to their habits.  The recording will be a reminder as to why they need to stay away from whatever it is that is tempting them, according to Shah.

“We’re also using Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA),” Shah explained,  “where we can send an alert to someone and ask what their behavior has been like the past couple hours and we can accumulate those to kind of predict their future behavior-- when they are having difficulty when they are likely to use again.”

Shah acknowledges that this is a work in progress as he details the features of the A-CHESS side of the project.  “We continue to develop these systems and revise and hone them, so that’s just a sense of what’s contained in there.”

As for the cost aspect of this technology, Shah says that the amount of money that will go towards the actual smartphone and monthly phone bill, opposed to the cost of keeping someone out of relapse, is tremendous.  “What we’re talking about is keeping people out of inpatient rehab, and when you do that, the cost savings is literally thousands of dollars a day,” he said.

The project is called “Implementing Technology Assisted Drug Treatment and Relapse Prevention in FQHCs” and will run through June 2017.  “During this first year, our efforts are really going to be focused on merging the different features we have within A-CHESS and TES, as they both continue to evolve, into a seamless system and deploying them,” Shah explained.

The next three years will be out in the field, in primary care settings, looking at the clinical level impact of deploying these technologies and whether it reduces cost at the same time that it’s improving the quality of care.  The last year of the program will be spent analyzing and reporting on the data.