A new form of support for those battling opioid addictions may be available via text.
That’s the goal of researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The idea is that patients will receive regular check-in texts and calls through an app to assess how they’re doing – if they’re on the verge of relapse, getting by or struggling – and relay their responses to a doctor.
The research team believes that the service will be able to lessen the number of opioid abusers, reduce the risk of relapse for those in recovery, and decrease treatment costs all while aiding more doctors in helping more patients. By checking in through texts, the study, published Tuesday in the journal NEJM Catalyst, said that doctors will be able to evaluate their patients’ general status and help them determine if more attention is necessary.
The app will also have an emergency “panic button” that users can activate for instant help if they feel they’re at immediate risk for relapse. Once pressed, a healthcare worker on standby would call the patient to talk and see if an appointment with a doctor is needed.
“There is an urgent need to address the opioid crisis in powerful new ways,” the study’s senior author Avik Som said in a release. “With the opioid epidemic, time is of the essence because of how quickly it’s grown and the lives that are lost.”
Opioids such as prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, are extremely addictive drugs that are responsible for almost 100 deaths each day in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The app is intended to be added to the multiple support systems a person in treatment should have at his or her disposal, the study said, like regular narcotics anonymous meetings and group or individual therapy.
“This is not meant to replace important programs or face-to-face contact between patients and providers,” Som said. “Rather, it is an additional tool that is affordable and immediate. It doesn’t require costly, time-consuming measures such as opening substance-abuse centers, and training and hiring new staff.”
A test group of 21 patients in the study started using the texting service in 2016 as part of a substance abuse treatment program. Through their text correspondences over three months, the researchers saw that half of the patients using the app reported no drug use at all; and although nine admitted to using again within the first three days of the study, only two said that they were still taking drugs after three months.
Successful patients attributed their progress at least partly to the ease and familiarity they felt with texting.
“Texting is convenient, immediate and nonjudgmental,” Som said. “It has become an integral part of how we communicate in society. Patients reported feeling more connected to health-care providers.”
The study’s next step is to further determine how much money the app will save patients, health care providers and insurance companies on battling addiction. A larger focus group of patients, including those on Medicaid, will be utilized.
“In the midst of this national emergency,” Som’s professor and mentor Will Ross said, “it is critical that patients and providers have clear, open channels of communication in order to mitigate the devastating impact of the opioid crisis.”
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