App for Recovering Alcoholics Provides 24/7 Care, Helps Them Stay Sober

Have an addiction? Like most things in this world, there’s an app for that. And according to new research, it actually works.

Though alcoholism is a life-long disease and research shows continuing care produces better outcomes, most patients leave treatment with only themselves to rely on. Often users report the weeks after rehab to be harder than treatment itself due to the lack of support. But a new app might be the way to change all that.

Each year in the U.S., excessive drinking takes 88,000 lives and costs about $224 billion. And for the roughly 18 million Americans with some kind of alcohol use disorder, it can be terribly difficult to quit.

Treatment helps. For alcoholics who seek it, roughly one in four stays completely sober for the following year, one in ten learn to drink moderately, and drinking overall is reduced by 87 percent. Even with these significant results, experts see room for improvement in the way we treat alcohol use disorders, specifically in aftercare, which is almost nonexistent in the current model.

A new study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry shows that an app called the Addiction-Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System (A-CHESS) significantly supports recovery after rehab, providing 24/7 personalized care with less counselor time. In the randomized trial, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison followed 349 alcohol-dependent patients after they left five residential programs, none of which offered care after their discharge.

Patients reported their drinking over the last 30 days at four-month intervals for the year following treatment. Participants who used the app were more likely to completely abstain from alcohol (52 percent vs. 40 percent), but those who did relapse also had fewer “risky” drinking days (1.39 vs. 2.75), defined as drinking more than four drinks (or three for a woman) in a two-hour period.

The A-CHESS app was designed to empower users and connect them to other recovered addicts and counselors. It helps users find addiction meetings, sends daily motivational thoughts, and has a section for further resources (The “Now that I'm sober I find I have lots of time on my hands. I'm bored!” topic links to a Healthy Event Guide) and podcasts on topics like, “Dealing with Urges,” and “Relaxation.”

Maybe most importantly, the app includes interactive features to intervene before a relapse occurs. A GPS function pings a user with, “Is this where you want to be?” if he gets too near places that might trigger a relapse, say, an old favorite bar. And a tap of the life preserver icon acts as a panic button, sending out a “Jane is struggling right now. Please reach out.” message to a previously determined support system. While she waits, the app asks a series of questions to determine her mood and suggests resources or reminders of goals that were set in treatment: “I want to be a better mom,” for instance.

During the eight months following treatment, participants used the app 100 days on average (41 percent of days) and 72 percent of them pressed the panic button at least once.

Though A-CHESS isn’t currently available to the public at large, its success could have positive implications for the range of widely popular addiction apps already on the market including several from Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as treatment centers like Hazelden and Promises.