Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine and digital health company Epharmix have developed an automated text messaging service designed to combat the opioid abuse epidemic in the US.
The service aims to reduce the likelihood of relapse back into opioid abuse, while also decreasing treatment costs, by offering support through text messages and phone calls to patients being treated for the addiction. The messages ask patients how they feel and a panic button allows them to call for immediate help.
The researchers suggest that this approach to addiction treatment will reduce medical costs and allow health professionals to treat more patients by reducing the time needed to monitor each patient.
Published in the NEJM Catalyst journal, the study began in late 2016 and involved 21 patients using the texting service as part of their treatment at Preferred Family Healthcare, a community-based organisation in St. Louis. Data collected during the trial revealed that after three months, the number of patients reporting relapses dropped from 43% of the group to just 10%.
Washington University PhD student and senior author of the study Avik Som said: “There is an urgent need to address the opioid crisis in powerful new ways. With the opioid epidemic, time is of the essence because of how quickly it’s grown and the lives that are lost.”
Som developed the text messaging technology as chief medical officer at Epharmix, a digital health company he founded with some of his peers in 2015. Epharmix specialises in creating mobile technologies for managing chronic conditions such as diabetes and depression.
The company designed the mobile technology to supplement cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), support services and other treatments for opioid addiction. Som does not intend for the text messaging service to replace any face-to-face contact between patients and healthcare professionals.
Patients who took part in the study were on the US medical payment program Medicaid and had acquired more than $20,000 each in medical costs related to substance abuse and other health problems. The researchers calculated that per-patient costs for caregiver services specific to addiction-related care would drop 19%, from $926 annually to $753, if their technology was used.
The researchers plan to conduct further studies to examine the text messaging strategy in a larger patient group, and better gauge potential savings in Medicaid funding and related costs.