Danya Institute Inc.

Brave New World 2013 Symposium Highlight: Fiona McTavish, MS on Using Mobile Phones and Laptops for Relapse Prevention

On March 8, 2013, Fiona McTavish, MS, shared the encouraging results of her team’s innovative research using smartphones to prevent substance abuse relapse to conference attendees at the “Brave New World: Using Technology to Enhance Behavioral Health” Symposium in Baltimore, Maryland.

McTavish and her colleagues have made use of laptops and mobile phones for those facing a wide variety of health issues for years. The new mobile phone app created to support individuals recovering from addictions (A-CHESS) includes assessments, education and training, social support, location tracking, alerts and reminders that combine to contribute to successful recovery (NIATxNPO, 2010). McTavish emphasizes that the goal is to treat the person “wholly.”

McTavish provides an example of A-CHESS in action through a short clip of a man during a weak moment in recovery; being confronted by feelings of loneliness and triggers to relapse when he is interrupted with A-CHESS recovery reminders on his smartphone that has detected his location (NIATxNPO, 2012). After ignoring an invitation to a virtual counseling session, he is sent a powerful video of himself describing the negative impact of addiction on his life. This moves him, and he boldly declares “I cannot afford to be that guy again,” and accepts the virtual counseling session.

“What motivates me is seeing that people’s lives have changed,” notes McTavish after reciting a heartening conversation between recovering veterans on one of their message boards which demonstrated the well-known benefit of having social support during recovery.

 “This is just an example of how giving people a smart phone like this can really make a difference in their lives,” she explains. She goes on to argue that the social support gained through A-CHESS message boards are much less invasive than a phone call at, say, 2 a.m.

 In 2012 her team received a $3.5 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to provide A-CHESS enhanced mobile devices to a randomized sample of individuals leaving addictions treatment centers in Boston, Massachusetts, and Peoria, Illinois (Board of Regents for the University of Wisconsin System, 2012).

 Individuals that were provided with A-CHESS enhanced mobile devices reported significantly less risky drinking days and were more likely to report having been completely abstinent within the last 30 days than a control group.  Participants also continued extended use of A-CHESS which, as McTavish explains, is atypical for free health mobile app downloads.

 The researchers are hopeful that the next step will be to disseminate A-CHESS as an app that could be downloaded by clinicians and individuals in recovery at reduced cost.

 McTavish is the Deputy Director of the Center for Enhancement Systems Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 The Symposium was conducted through the collaboration of the Mid-Atlantic Node Clinical Trails Network, Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, Maryland Mental Hygiene Administration, and the Central East Addiction Technology Transfer Center, a program of The Danya Institute.

 You can access the clip shown by McTavish, a tutorial on how to use A-CHESS, and an article on UW-Madison’s research here:

Board of Regents for the University of Wisconsin System (2012, September 21). UW team to test mobile apps to prevent substance abuse relapses. University of Wisconsin-Madison News. Retrieved from http://www.news.wisc.edu/21082

NIATxNPO (2010, June 8). Addiction CHESS- Smart phone tutorial (part 1). YouTube. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/LEqY59bBwCo

NIATxNPO (2012, September 20). Innovations for recovery: Video chat. YouTube. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/WJXbC-hEQns


Catie Greene, MS, is a pre-doctoral student of Counselor Education at the College of William & Mary