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New smartphone app for recovering alcoholics includes a panic button

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A new app aims to help recovering alcoholics steer clear of temptation. The app includes a panic button and sounds an alarm when people trying to stay sober get too close to drinking establishments.

Research published today found the app helped prevent some alcoholics from relapsing.

The Associated Press reports on the study, which was published online Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.

Mark Wiitala, 32, took part in the study and says the app helped save his life. He said the most helpful feature allowed him to connect to a network of peers who'd gone through the same recovery program. The app made them immediately accessible for an encouraging text or phone call when he needed an emotional boost.

"It's an absolutely amazing tool," said Wiitala, of Middlesex County, Mass. He said he's continued to use it even though the study ended.

The study involved 271 adults followed for a year after in-patient treatment for alcoholism at one of several U.S. centers in the Midwest and Northeast.

Participants were randomly assigned to get a sober smartphone app for eight months plus usual follow-up treatment — typically referral to a self-help group — or usual follow-up alone.

The Huffington Post reports the app includes a feature asking periodic questions by text or voicemail about how patients are doing. If enough answers seem worrisome, the system automatically notifies a counselor who can then offer help.

And the panic button can be programmed to notify peers who are nearest to the patient when the button is pushed. It also offers links to relaxation techniques to calm the patient while waiting for help.

"We've been told that makes a big difference," said David Gustafson, the lead author and director of the Center for Health Enhancement Systems Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He's among developers of the app, nicknamed A-CHESS after the center. Gustafson said it is being commercially developed and is not yet available.

Of the approximately 18 million Americans who struggle with alcohol abuse, only about 25 percent who get treatment are able to remain abstinent for at least a year afterward.

Tools like a smartphone app could help improve those statistics, the AP reports.

"There is increasing excitement regarding technology-based tools in substance use treatment, prevention and education," said Dr. Gail Basch, director of the addiction medicine program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

The app is the latest in a slew of recent options designed to help recovering alcoholics stay sober.

In Minnesota, first-time alcohol offenders with an alcohol concentration of 0.16 or above and all second-time alcohol offenders have the option of regaining their driving privileges by participating in the Minnesota Ignition Interlock Device Program.

Drivers whose licenses are canceled and whose privileges are denied as "inimical to public safety" are required to enroll in the Ignition Interlock Device Program for a period of three to six years in order to regain full driving privileges.

The interlock is the size of a hand-held calculator and includes a blowing tube. It prevents a vehicle from starting if it detects a certain alcohol concentration level after the driver blows into the tube.

The device is installed near the steering wheel and connected to the engine.

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