Text messaging tool may help fight opioid epidemic

April 18, 2018

A new automated text messaging service may curb opioid abuse and reduce the likelihood of relapse while also decreasing treatment costs, according to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine and Epharmix, a St. Louis-based digital health company.

The service provides automated text messages and phone calls to patients being treated for opioid addiction. Such messages ask patients if they’re feeling OK or struggling with potential relapse. Patients also can activate a panic button for immediate help.

Time saved from monitoring patients through individual phone calls and in-person appointments may trim medical costs and permit health-care workers to treat more patients without accruing heavier workloads.

Findings of the small study were published April 17, 2018, in NEJM Catalyst, a publication of The New England Journal of Medicine Group.

“There is an urgent need to address the opioid crisis in powerful new ways,” said the study’s senior author, Avik Som, an MD/PhD student at Washington University. Som, who has completed his doctorate in biomedical engineering and will receive his medical degree in May, helped develop the text-messaging technology as chief medical officer at Epharmix, a digital health company he founded with classmates in 2015. The company creates mobile technologies aimed at managing chronic conditions such as diabetes, depression, and hypertension.

Nearly 100 people die each day due to opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A highly addictive class of drugs, opioids include prescription painkillers, heroin, and fentanyl.

The mobile technology is designed to supplement cognitive behavioral therapy, support services and other treatments aimed at combating opioid addiction. “This is not meant to replace important programs or face-to-face contact between patients and providers,” Som said. “Rather, it is an additional tool that is affordable and immediate. It doesn’t require costly, time-consuming measures such as opening substance-abuse centers, and training and hiring new staff.

The 21 patients in the study began using the texting service in late 2016 as part of their treatment at Preferred Family Healthcare, a community-based organization in St. Louis that offers treatment for substance abuse.

Data collected via the text messaging service found that at the time of enrollment, nine patients (43%) reported substance abuse use in the previous three days, and nine patients (43%) reported no use, while the remaining did not respond. After three months, half of the 21 total patients reported no substance use, while the number of patients using dropped to two (10%). The researchers can’t attribute the positive trend solely to the app but said the data are encouraging.

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has the full story