Smartphone App Helps Alcoholics Stay Sober

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Smartphone App Helps Alcoholics Stay SoberAddiction specialists know that people recovering from alcoholism benefit from continued support after completing their primary treatment programs. However, not all people have the means or opportunity to receive appropriate continuing care. In a study published in March 2014 in the American Medical Association journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers from four U.S. institutions assessed the usefulness of a smartphone application called the Addiction Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System (A-CHESS) as a tool for providing the resources necessary to help recovering alcoholics maintain their sobriety after residential treatment.

The Basics

The options available for treating people affected by alcoholism have increased considerably since the 1980s. Three medications (disulfiram, acamprosate and naltrexone) are specifically approved by the Food and Drug Administration as alcoholism treatments, and doctors can also use a fourth medication (topiramate) originally designed to address the symptoms of migraine headaches and epilepsy. Non-medication-based approaches used to treat people affected by alcoholism include behavioral modification therapies and mutual support or 12-step groups. Despite the expansion of available options, most people affected by alcoholism or alcohol abuse don’t receive any kind of treatment, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports. A small number of these individuals manage to stop drinking on their own, at least temporarily. However, addiction specialists and public health officials know that involvement in some sort of structured treatment is critical for the prospects of a stable, long-term recovery.


The Addiction Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System was originally developed by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This smartphone application has features that allow people recovering from alcoholism to do such things as stay in contact with their doctors or the members of their support groups, receive time-sensitive appraisals of their risks for relapsing back into alcohol use, receive regular notes or reminders that promote compliance with ongoing treatment objectives, receive person-specific instruction on alcoholism-related issues, access web-based alcoholism resources and make a rapid request to see a doctor. The designers of the application created it because they wanted to help people who’ve gone through alcoholism treatment (or treatment for other forms of addiction) reduce their risks for experiencing a relapse back into substance use. More specifically, they wanted to increase the odds that any given individual can overcome potential obstacles to his or her ongoing recovery (such as financial restrictions or residence in remote areas) and remain sober.

Potential Usefulness

In the study published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and three other institutions used an examination of 349 adults affected by alcoholism to test the usefulness of the A-CHESS smartphone application in helping recovering alcoholics avoid risky alcohol consumption. Half of these participants were given access to the app for eight months after completing residential alcoholism treatment, while the other half did not receive access to A-CHESS after completing residential treatment. The researchers conducted follow-ups at the close of the eight-month primary phase. During these follow-ups, each study participant was asked to detail his or her participation in risky drinking over three separate time periods. The researchers defined risky drinking as binge drinking, a practice that involves consuming enough alcohol to reach a legally intoxicated state within two hours.

At the close of the follow-up phase, the researchers compared the risky drinking behaviors of the study participants with access to A-CHESS to the risky drinking behaviors of the participants who did not use the smartphone app. They found that the recovering alcoholics with A-CHESS access engaged in risky drinking behaviors an average of 1.39 days per month. In contrast, the recovering alcoholics with no access to A-CHESS engaged in risky drinking an average of 2.75 days per month.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study published in JAMA Psychiatry believe that their findings support the potential usefulness of A-CHESS or similar smartphone applications as aids to help people in long-term recovery from alcoholism reduce their risks for relapse and excessive alcohol consumption. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also notes the potential usefulness of A-CHESS and specifically cites the application’s customizability and ability to provide recovering alcoholics with needed treatment resources. The NIAAA also notes the fairly recent emergence of other technologies that could improve the rate of successful treatment for alcohol abuse or alcoholism, including Internet-based counseling sessions and Internet-based educational and motivational initiatives.