Online tools for alcohol recovery could reduce treatment gaps – but uptake is slow

Newswise – Online resources to support recovery from alcohol use disorder (AUD) show promise but are underutilized, according to a new study. The expansion of digital recovery mediums, such as video meetings, chat rooms and social networking sites, could potentially help address a significant unmet service need. In 2020, less than one in ten Americans with a current or recent substance use disorder received some form of treatment. Women are less likely to access treatment than men, research shows. Online services can make recovery support more accessible, removing some barriers associated with traditional treatment (eg, transportation and cost) and reducing others (eg, stigma). However, research is sparse and the factors influencing the use and effects of digital services are not well understood. For the study in Alcoholism: clinical and experimental researchresearchers explored how people recovering from AUD use online materials and whether this use is related to gender or outcomes.

Investigators worked with data from 1,500 American adults who identified themselves as recovering from AUD. The data comes from a national survey conducted in the fall of 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time of heightened stressors and potentially reduced support resources. The researchers used statistical analysis to explore associations between participants’ reported use of online recovery aids and a range of additional factors: the impact of the pandemic on their alcohol or drug use, their perceived quality of life, severity of their AUD, time spent in recovery, use of treatment services, social support, and demographics.

About 15% of participants said they had already used online services. The low usage may reflect, in part, the age of the participants, which biased the elderly. Young adults were more likely to report currently using online recovery aids, as well as those with a college education, employment, and relatively high incomes. The most frequently used type of digital support was non-recovery social networking sites (eg, Facebook). Men were more likely than women to have attended online group meetings and used treatment information websites. Participants with more severe AUD in their lifetime, or who had received treatment for alcohol problems, or who had less than five years of recovery were also more likely to have used online resources. Among women (but not men), more AUD symptoms were associated with greater use of online services. The use of digital media was low in 2020, especially for women. This may be associated with pandemic stressors and/or increased childcare responsibilities. For women, current use of online recovery services was linked to being unemployed and having children living at home. For men, current use was more likely among those who were unmarried or in early recovery. The study found no association between women’s use of online resources and outcomes, although men reporting unstable recovery and lower quality of life were more likely to have used online materials.

Low use of digital media among people who have not accessed alcohol treatment may signal a lack of awareness of these resources in the wider community. The researchers stressed the need for studies conducted over time, clarifying which factors determine which results. They called for a survey of the comparative effectiveness of online services, barriers to their use, and whether digital tools should be adapted to take gender factors into account. They stressed the need for equitable access to technology. The relatively small sample of women using online services may have limited the study results.

Online support for recovery from alcohol use disorders: a survey of gender differences in lifetime and current use. P. Gilbert, E. Saathoff, A. Russell, G. Brown. (pp xxx)


Melvin G. Rodriguez