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NIAAA alert summarizes benefits and risks of electronic tools

June 5, 2015
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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An alert from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) outlines the promise of digital and mobile technologies for enhancing alcohol use treatment, prevention and aftercare, but suggests that some of the most proven strategies so far have been those that work in conjunction with face-to-face support.

eHealth Technology and What It Means for the Alcohol Field is the 88th Alcohol Alert in NIAAA's ongoing series. It states that the emergence of “ecological momentary assessment” (EMA) approaches that measure individuals' drinking and related behaviors in real time can avoid the problem of individuals' bias in recalling their behavior and can lead to tailored prevention approaches. However, the alert points out, “Although potentially powerful, EMA is not foolproof. It may provoke 'measurement reactivity' in which people change their behavior when they know they are being monitored, or people may be unwilling to comply with EMA protocols.”

In the area of treatment, the alert describes a number of digital technologies that can help reach people who might otherwise go untreated. These include electronic screenings and intake forms to ease individuals' entry into treatment; electronic cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or other treatment apps to standardize therapy; and electronic tools for extending care beyond the treatment facility. The alert cites mixed research results on these interventions, stating, “There is clear evidence that [digital health technologies] benefit people with less severe alcohol problems, but little evidence that, on their own, [digital health technologies] are helpful to those whose alcohol problems are more challenging.”

The alert adds that post-treatment follow-up technologies such as various smartphone applications appear to have the strongest research support when they are used not as stand-alone strategies, but as adjuncts to traditional approaches.