New study highlights success of online interventions for substance abuse treatment

Posted Date: July 31, 2017

A new article in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment suggests that a computer program could be the most effective way of prompting substance-using probationers and parolees to start a treatment plan.

This news is especially important considering the millions of probationers across the United States who need substance abuse treatment yet never actually initiate or complete it.

In 2015, nearly 25 million adults in the U.S. reported illicit drug use in the prior month, and nearly 65 million reported binge alcohol episodes. Of those in need of treatment, only 14% actually started an intervention program.

“Health and justice systems are overburdened in terms of costs and resources,” said Scott T. Walters, PhD, Professor and Chair of Health Behavior and Health Systems at the UNT Health Science Center School of Public Health, who served as an investigator on the study of MAPIT motivational computer technology as a way to increase substance abuse treatment initiation.

With researchers from George Mason University, Dr. Walters and colleagues compared results from MAPIT to in-person motivational interviewing and standard probation intake processes for prompting individuals toward treatment.

More than 300 probationers in Dallas, Texas, and Baltimore City, Maryland, participated in the randomized, controlled study, funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

MAPIT employs user-friendly, voice-automated online software to stimulate the desire to begin treatment, set goals and stay motivated in recovery.

The program interacts with users by recognizing patterns and preferences in their reasons for wanting to finish probation, making suggestions for strategies that might work specifically for them.

After two months, people who were randomly assigned to MAPIT were more than twice as likely to begin treatment, compared to those routed to standard justice system processes.

“The start of probation is a critical time to educate and motivate individuals. MAPIT provides a platform for addressing substance use and other high-risk behaviors,” Dr. Walters said.

“The success of MAPIT shows that a computerized intervention as part of a screening and treatment referral program can improve short-term treatment initiation among substance-using probationers. Programs like this can significantly impact public safety and health without placing additional burdens on the criminal justice system,” he said.