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Apps represent pocket-sized support

May 8, 2018
by Brian Albright
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People in recovery face a number of challenges, but staying sober after discharge from an inpatient treatment program obviously is one of the most difficult. Treatment centers have long struggled with maintaining patient engagement in aftercare services, however.

A new class of mobile apps aimed at substance use disorders might help change that. There have been addiction recovery apps on the market for several years, many of which were basic care trackers or simplified motivational tools. Newer apps now provide more advanced therapy resources and even provide incentives for aftercare program compliance.

According to Data Bridge Market Research, the global market for mobile medical apps is growing. To date, most of these software products have focused on things like fitness tracking, but treatment specific apps are also emerging in the field of “digital therapeutics.” Diabetics can monitor their blood sugar levels using mobile devices, for example.

In addiction treatment, these apps can provide quick connections with clinicians, sponsors and peers, as well as tools to help track and manage recovery progress.

“Most of our clients have a mobile phone, and everything they want is available at their fingertips, including the location of the nearest liquor store or their dealer,” says Chelsea Brigham, clinical outreach manager at Huntington Beach, Calif.-based Simple Recovery, which offers the WeConnect mobile app to its clients. “We want to make every possible recovery resource and their support system available to them that easily as well.”

Pear Therapeutics recently received FDA approval to market its Reset addiction treatment app as a way to improve clinical outcomes for certain patients and has fast-tracked the company’s Reset-O app for opioid addiction. The company has also developed apps for treating schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress and anxiety. The Reset app delivers computerized cognitive behavioral therapy activities and is prescribed by a clinician—hence the need for FDA approval.

Soberlink created a remote alcohol monitoring system that incorporates a cellular breathalyzer with facial recognition that sends real-time blood alcohol content results to the client's treatment provider or support team. The remote monitoring system is being used by Hazelden Betty Ford and Caron Treatment centers in their continued care programs.

In other examples, SoberTool tracks sober days and provides reminders. rTribe, developed by a group of people in recovery, also provides reminders and progress tracking capabilities, as well as ways to create prevention plans built around triggers. There are also a number of free 12-Step based apps and instant meeting finders.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic now has its own app store, which includes tools from other treatment centers and third-party apps. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology even came up with a mobile device called iHeal that monitors motion, skin temperature and heart rate to alert patients when they might be under relapse-triggering stress.

Monitoring progress

For treatment providers, these apps offer patients a way to stick with their aftercare plans, while also providing updates to counselors who otherwise might be in the dark as to their clients’ progress.

At Simple Recovery, the HIPAA-compliant WeConnect app is made available voluntarily to all clients upon admission.

“It provides continuing care access to clients, on a platform that makes sense,” Brigham says. “People can stay sober in the confines of treatment, but it is more challenging when they reintegrate into the larger community. They lose the accountability they had in treatment, and lose contact with peers and therapists. They don’t have the same support system.”

All clients and clinicians have access to the app. It includes a calendar that is populated with information from the client’s discharge plan. The app also includes geo-location technology, so it can track whether the client attended a meeting, for example, or kept an appointment.

“It tracks compliance, and if you stay at 70%, there are incentives available through the app,” Brigham says. “You earn points for completing activities, and once you get so many points you can get a gift card or earn other rewards.”

The app also includes an “S.O.S.” button to allow clients to reach out to sponsors, case managers or therapists if they have relapse or fear they might be on the verge of a setback. The tool is voluntary and provided free to the clients for a year. After the first year, they can opt in for a fee. Counselors have access to the data, and Simple Recovery has also implemented an education group in the clinical setting that is geared toward WeConnect users.

“We strongly encourage them to use it, but it’s not mandatory,” Brigham says. “In some cases, they say they don’t want to be tracked because they feel like someone is watching them, but that’s not how the app works. It’s not us watching them; it’s based around self-accountability.”

Improved abstinence through mobility

There isn’t much generally available data about how effective these apps are yet, but Pear Therapeutics has reported its own clinical trials—a prerequisite for receiving approval from the FDA in September 2017 to market it for alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and stimulant treatment.


Addiction professionals annually convene at the National Conference on Addiction Disorders to share what’s working: Clinicians hear from thought leaders on delivering treatment, while executives of behavioral healthcare organizations learn how to run more effective, more efficient, and ethically minded businesses.

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