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Recovery apps introduced to enhance peer support, reduce relapse

May 02, 2014

This is the age of technology—most everyone across the age span is constantly seen using mobile devices. The addiction industry has caught on to the technological trend, with recovery apps continuing to gain momentum as a post-treatment tool.

More than five years ago, Matt Feehery, CEO of Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center (PaRC) in Houston, decided that mobile technology was something he wanted the program to be able to provide for its patients and alumni. The type of communication that was desired was more private than Facebook – something that could be specific to recovery initiatives and connect individuals with sponsors and other supporters. 

At first his plan was to develop the technology in-house, but he soon realized that would be far too expensive and time-consuming. Without the proper personnel resources and expertise on hand to develop exactly what he envisioned, Feehery decided to search in the broader marketplace for an existing platform that then could be revised to meet PaRC’s needs.

While at a conference, Feehery met staff from California-based OneHealth, a technology company that specializes in comprehensive online communities to assist people in changing and maintaining behaviors to live healthy lives, and soon realized that the company had a technology that would work very well for PaRC. “As they continued to evolve their program, approach, and technology applications, it allowed us to grow with them,” he explains.

Key components

Feehery says he was invited to review the proposed changes with the technology company and was able to show support for the areas he believed were most important. User friendliness was the main concern. It was important for users to be able to log in easily and to access all of the features from a mobile device.

“The younger population we treat – under 30 – live and breathe with their mobile devices,” he says. “They are texting animals. That’s how they communicate.”

Some of the early suggestions Feehery and his team had regarding this technology included simplifying the icons that individuals can use to convey their emotional wellness at a particular moment. When a user is struggling, he or she can push that message out via an icon and the entire support network will be notified so that someone can reach out.

Additionally, the technology allows users to search for more specific forums addressing trauma, an eating disorder, or another issue that may call for a conversation with others in the support network. There is a forum specifically for PaRC clients and alumni as well as forums that include everyone from the broader community of recovery supporters.

Feehery also believes it’s important for these types of applications to allow the users to find meetings in the local area, such as when they are traveling.

Varying reactions based on age

Although the technology receives varying initial reactions based on the user’s age – people who are in their 20s and 30s tend to grasp on to it immediately and be excited, while the over-60 population tends to be more hesitant to begin – Feehery says all age groups utilize the recovery application and that use overall is increasing.

Individuals are enrolled in the online program while they are in treatment so that the staff can help set them up with log-in credentials, show them how to navigate the site, and ensure that clients will be able to use it on their own by the time of discharge.

Early on, the challenge was with individuals who were not comfortable with technology in general. Since clinical teams are typically made up of people of diverse ages and professional experiences, Feehery recalls some of the older staff who were not used to using a computer as a resource tool being slightly close-minded about the recovery application.

Because younger employees were more enthusiastic about how the information was being conveyed to their patients, these patients tended to sign on and use more of the technology than the older staff’s patients. The key for PaRC was dedicating some staff resources to this area. For example, someone now has the responsibility of overseeing implementation, and Feehery says that this has resulted in more overall support.

Cost of technology implementation

The cost of the program, which Feehery says is absorbed into the overall cost of providing treatment to PaRC’s patients, is based on the size of the population and the number of people that will potentially be enrolled. “I look at it as an overall expense that’s associated with aftercare or continuing care,” he explains. Although patients may choose not to use it after they leave treatment, he says it’s important to put the technology in their hands as another access point to recovery support services.

While he is unable to disclose the exact dollar amount of the technology, he says he looks at it as being in the “affordable” range. Especially when comparing it to his original plan of creating a new technology in-house, he says the savings have been tremendous. OneHealth offers different plans based on individual organizations and the contract set up is annual and can be renewed or modified.

The value proposition, as Feehery describes it, depends on if the company feels this technology would serve a need in its offering that it is unable to do on its own or doesn’t want to undertake on its own. When looking into costs for technologies such as this, keep in mind that there will also need to be staff to commit to this and help build participation.

Since PaRC doesn’t allow mobile devices for patients while in treatment, individuals initially are set up with the program on iPads or computers that PaRC provides. When patients step down to the outpatient level, they then are able to use their mobile devices.

Clinician involvement

Post-treatment, the level of clinician involvement depends on the organization. At PaRC, clinicians are not monitoring the users individually and responding to them once they leave treatment. Feehery says this has to do with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) mandates. “If a professional was dispensing clinical advice over a forum, even if it’s specifically to one individual, that would constitute a patient-staff encounter,” he explains.

This also stresses the idea and importance of peer support. While in treatment, individuals are introduced to alumni through the continuing care and alumni meetings at PaRC. These individuals can become the base of their support network on the recovery application.

Technology options

In a recent press release, OneHealth announced that the company now has direct relationships with more than 50 treatment facilities and more than 1,000 providers through its various channel relationships.

Stephen Gumbley, director of the New England Addiction Technology Transfer Center (ATTC) and acting director of Faces & Voices of Recovery, believes it’s crucial to have technological tools available to people in recovery because “the benefits are tremendous.”

Some other recovery applications that exist are:

The Mobile MORE (My Ongoing Recovery Experience) – Developed by Hazelden, this application is organized into three volumes that help users work the 12 Steps while progressing through the three stages of recovery that make up a full year of recovery support. It offers an inspirational message each day and a 12-Step meeting locator, and allows the user to connect with others for support. The application also keeps track of days sober.

Steps Away – This application allows users to locate a 12-Step meeting anywhere in the world.

Friend of Bill – This application keeps track of the user’s sobriety. Each day when the individual logs in to the program, they will see how many months, days, hours and minutes they have been sober along with one of the 350 Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) slogans for motivation/inspiration. 

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