Does personalised advice via computer or mobile devices reduce heavy drinking?
That’s the key question addressed by a recent Cochrane Review. As readers from the research community will know, Cochrane Reviews are are systematic reviews of primary research in human health care and health policy, and are internationally recognised as the highest standard in evidence-based health care.
This review set out to discover if personalised advice to reduce heavy drinking provided using a computer or mobile device is better than nothing or printed information. The authors (Kaner EFS, Beyer FR, Garnett C, Crane D, Brown J, Muirhead C, Redmore J, O’Donnell A, Newham JJ, de Vocht F, Hickman M, Brown H, Maniatopoulos G, Michie S.) also compared advice provided using a computer or mobile device to advice given in a face-to-face conversation. The main outcome was how much alcohol people drank.
Heavy drinking causes over 60 diseases, as well as many accidents, injuries and early deaths each year. Brief advice or counselling, delivered by doctors or nurses, can help people reduce their drinking by around 4 to 5 units a week. In the UK, this is around two pints of beer or half a bottle of wine each week. However, people may be embarrassed by talking about alcohol.
The literature reviewed
The studies reviewed included people in workplaces, colleges or health clinics and internet users. Everyone typed information about their drinking into a computer or mobile device – which then gave half the people advice about how much they drank and the effect this has on health. This group also received suggestions about how to cut down on drinking. The other group could sometimes read general health information. Between one month and one year later, everyone was asked to confirm how much they were drinking. Drinking levels in both groups were compared to each other at these time points.
Below is an example of a digital alcohol intervention – the Drinkaware app:
The authors included 57 studies in their review which compared the drinking of people getting advice about alcohol from computers or mobile devices with those who did not after one to 12 months. Of these, 41 studies (42 comparisons, 19,241 participants) focused on the actual amounts that people reported drinking each week.
Most people reported drinking less if they received advice about alcohol from a computer or mobile device compared to people who did not get this advice.
Evidence shows that the amount of alcohol people cut down may be about 1.5 pints of beer or a third of a bottle of wine each week.
Other measures supported the effectiveness of digital alcohol interventions, although the size of the effect tended to be smaller than for overall alcohol consumption. Positive differences in measures of drinking were seen at 1, 6 and 12 months after the advice.
There was not enough information to help the researchers decide if advice was better from computers, telephones or the internet to reduce risky drinking.
We do not know which pieces of advice were the most important to help people reduce problem drinking. However, advice from trusted people such as doctors seemed helpful, as did recommendations that people think about specific ways they could overcome
problems that might prevent them from drinking less and suggestions about things to do instead of drinking.
The authors included five studies which compared the drinking of people who got advice from computers or mobile devices with advice from face-to-face conversations with doctors or nurses; there may be little or no difference between these to reduce heavy drinking.
There are two overall conclusions from this Cochrane Review:
- Personalised advice using computers or mobile devices may help people reduce heavy drinking better than doing nothing or providing only general health information.
- Personalised advice through computers or mobile devices may make little or no difference to reduce drinking compared to face-to-face conversation.
You can see a range of the latest digital alcohol interventions reviewed here.
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