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SMS Text Messages Show Promise in Curbing Drinking

December 19, 2011

Early results of a new study released provide promising indicators that SMS text messaging might be an effective way for health care providers to help young adults reduce heavy drinking.

A study funded by a research grant by the Emergency Medicine Foundation stated that text messaging possibly proves an effective way for health care providers to help young adults reduce heavy drinking. The findings will be published in the March 2012 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research and are now available online.

"When we used text-messaging to collect drinking data and to offer immediate feedback and support to young adults discharged from the emergency department, they drank less," said lead study author Brian Suffoletto, M.D., M.S., assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh in Pa. "Each day in the U.S., more than 50,000 adults ages 18 to 24 visit hospital emergency departments and more than a third of them report current alcohol abuse or dependence. If not addressed, hazardous or binge drinking can lead to high rates of avoidable injuries and death."

Researchers enrolled 45 adults ages 18 to 24 who were discharged from three emergency departments in a 12-week trial of a text-messaging based program. Almost half of the young adults who were screened through a computer-based survey indicated hazardous drinking behavior. Over the course of the study, participants assigned to both assessment and intervention groups reported that they drank an average of 1.6 days per week and a maximum of 3.8 drinks per drinking day.

Participants in both groups received a series of standard, automated text message queries each week about the frequency of their drinking and quantity consumed. In the intervention group, men who reported more than five drinks during any 24-hour period and women who reported more than four received a text message expressing concern about those levels and asking if the participant would be willing to set a goal to reduce drinking for the week. Those who said yes then received messages expressing positive reinforcement and strategies for cutting down. Those who refused to set goals received a text message encouraging them to reflect on the decision.

At three months, participants who received the text-message intervention had 3.4 fewer heavy drinking days in the preceding month and 2.1 fewer drinks per drinking day when compared to baseline. The assessment group, however, increased their drinking over the course of the study, which is inconsistent with prior studies showing a reduction in drinking in patients that undergo assessments, the researchers noted. They speculated that the frequent text messaging might have raised the awareness of alcohol use by the participants and improved the accuracy of their responses.

"Because we used an automated computer system, our intervention has the ability to provide text-messaging based feedback and support at large scale with minimal cost," said Dr. Suffoletto. "Although larger studies are still needed to verify the efficacy and feasibility of this type of program, this appears to be a promising approach that could save the lives of young adults nationwide."

The Emergency Medicine Foundation's research grant to Dr. Suffoletto was funded by the Century Council, a not-for-profit organization supported by distillers dedicated to fighting drunk driving and underage drinking. For more than 35 years, the EMF has funded innovative clinical and laboratory research.

David Vaughan is an industry veteran of telecom, now Director of Projects at TSG Global, Inc. To read more of David's articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves
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