Phone app helps alcoholics quit drinking

Taiwanese scientists design a mobile phone app, the Sober Diary, to help addicts quit alcohol.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN (APRIL 15, 2014) (REUTERS) – Taiwanese scientists have developed a smart phone-based app (application) that helps alcohol-dependent patients break their drinking habit. The Sober Diary uses a smart phone and a hand-sized breathalyser to transmit data on their alcohol use via Bluetooth.

The app was co-designed by Chu Hao-hua, professor of Computer Science and Information Engineering at National Taiwan University, with researcher You Chuang-wen. It was developed in conjunction with the Addiction Prevention and Treatment Department of Taipei City Hospital. The team started working on the app in 2012.

Researchers ask patients to blow into the breathalyser through a filter four times a day over a three month period. The data is uploaded to a central server so researchers can monitor their patients’ alcohol use.

Yang Cheng-chang, 50, was one of the first group of 15 patients or so who took part in initial trials in 2013. He says the app helped him overcome his addiction to wine.

“The app requires tests in the morning, the afternoon, the evening, and before going to sleep respectively,” said Yang. “It has become a daily routine, so you will keep it in mind and never forget to do it when the time is up. It will be delayed if you drink alcohol. But you know what you are supposed to do when it is time, which is to test whether you have drunk alcohol. So you will know that you can’t drink alcohol if you have a routine. It is hard to quit at the beginning but it becomes easy at the end as time goes by.”

Co-designer Huang, who is also a psychiatrist, said the Sober Diary app proved more effective than hospital treatment. “We found that as long as our patients leave the hospital, most of the time, they have to face themselves, temptations and difficulties which are everywhere in the environment. If there is a system they can use whenever they want to for self-monitoring and self-management, it will be more effective than receiving help in the hospital for a short period of time. Because it is easy to access and cheap, and there is no extra cost. It is available 24 hours a day and seven days a week,” she said.

The Sober Diary App also provides a variety of functions to make it more interesting, including playing relaxing music, a guidance of audio recording to suggest to users that they take a walk when they feel the desire to drink alcohol needs, or even the ability to award themselves coupons as a reward when they make progress.

“Mostly importantly, the self-monitoring or self-administration function of the system makes patients realize their everyday change, and their mood change or so-called level of craving (for alcohol). At the same time, the app also tells our patients what to do in case they are craving for alcohol when under great pressure or experiencing mood swing, or when the app shows they have consumed a great amount of alcohol after they breathe (into the breathalyser),” Huang added.

For another participant, Shen Hsiao-cheng, using the app is like carrying in her pocket a doctor who can remind her to stay away from alcohol at all times.

“After starting participating in the test, I feel like I am carrying a portable doctor in my pocket. Although there have been occasional opportunities to drink alcohol, but I would tell myself: I better not do that,” Shen said.

A total of 57 patients have so far been tested by the team with the app, and their results compared with a further 46 patients not using it. Sober Diary is currently for academic research purpose only, although the designers have uploaded it onto GooglePlay for Android system users to download for free.