Mobile apps have reached into every area of the smartphone user’s life. Apps for social media are used millions of times per day, and people routinely take care of business transactions like bill-paying, appointment setting, and shopping.

In addition to these convenience apps, there are now apps for use by people who need to manage chronic diseases. Apps exist for people who have asthma, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Recovery communities have developed apps to be used as part of the follow-up to substance abuse treatment. Until recently, the effectiveness of these apps has not been scientifically studied. Now, however, the University of Wisconsin has conducted a study of an app designed to assist people who have gone through substance abuse treatment.

The University of Wisconsin Study of the Seva App

The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health developed an app (with funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse) and made it available to mostly low-income residents in Madison, Wisconsin, at a rural facility in Montana, and at an urban clinic in the Bronx.

Seva, which is a Sanskrit word for “selfless service,” was an app that offered several features to users who had completed substance abuse treatment, including:

  • Discussion board
  • Interactive problem-solving modules
  • Tools for coping with cravings
  • Tips for dealing with high-risk situations

Altogether, 268 people enrolled in the Seva study, with researchers checking baseline behaviors as well as behaviors after six and 12 months, all of which were self-reported by participants.

Positive Healthcare Outcomes from App Use

Group of smartphones showing app icons

Results from use of the Seva app were encouraging, with less substance use and fewer hospitalizations.

Patients used the Seva app extensively, often using it to offer support to each other apart from their “official” healthcare. The results were promising. The number of “risky drinking days” experienced by app users dropped by 44 percent, and days in which app users consumed illicit drugs dropped by 34 percent. Importantly from a cost standpoint, hospitalizations among app users dropped by 32 percent, and visits to hospital emergency departments dropped by an impressive 49 percent. Exactly how much this represents in terms of monetary savings is unclear, but with the average ER visit costing around $2,200, savings are sure to be substantial.

Concerns about Apps for Substance Abuse Treatment

Funding is a major concern for apps like Seva. In fact, although patient participation was as high as 99 percent at the beginning of the study, indicating enthusiasm for the app, use dropped to zero once the funding from NIDA ran out. That funding had been used largely for the purchase of smartphones and data plans for users, many of whom were low-income individuals.

Another concern about the app is the simple fact that an app cannot replace person-to-person contact with a trained substance abuse treatment counselor or physician. Apps are great, but they cannot convey the types of visual and voice cues that a counselor or physician would pick up from a face-to-face visit.

The Future of Chronic Disease Apps

The future of the Seva app, if there is to be one, depends on funding from NIDA, and whether or not that funding is forthcoming has not been shared. Fortunately, Seva is one of several apps designed for people in recovery after substance abuse treatment. Some of these apps are free to download, while others have nominal charges, but usually cost less than $5. For the person who needs in-the-moment help to deal with triggers and high-risk situations, these apps can be useful. They are not meant to substitute for comprehensive substance abuse treatment, however.

If you or any of your loved ones have a substance abuse disorder, help is available, and treatment is something no one has to attempt alone. We encourage you to contact us today to learn more about substance abuse treatment and how it successfully helps people navigate the road to recovery.


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Mobile App Shows Promise in the Treatment of Substance Use Disorders
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