A Startphone app that “nudges” patients with alcohol-related liver disease away from their favourite drinking dens and off-licences is being trialled by a London hospital.
Sixty patients whose problem drinking has resulted in them being admitted to a ward at the Royal Free hospital, Hampstead, will be enrolled on the scheme.
The AlcoChange app uses GPS technology to send alerts if a patient is in the vicinity of a regular drinking area or shop selling alcohol. It can also measure intoxication levels when the patient blows into a breathalyser plugged into the phone’s headphone socket.
Dr Gautam Mehta, honorary consultant at the Royal Free and senior lecturer at UCL, said patients often needed help to prevent them returning to the bottle.
More than one in thee adults in the UK drinks to harmful levels, and 600 people a year with alcohol-related liver disease are admitted to the Royal Free. Across the north-central London NHS area that includes the Royal Free, 210 hospital beds are occupied 365 days a year by such patients.
Dr Mehta told the Standard: “These people tend to come back into hospital. Forty-four per cent are re-admitted within 12 months. If they carry on drinking, 50 per cent will be dead within three years. But if they stop drinking, more than 80 per cent are alive after 10 years.
“It’s a massively reversible condition. Even with cirrhosis, the risk of death can be decreased by stopping drinking. If there is a risk of alcohol-related harm, the app sends messages to the user at vulnerable times. It gives them constructive feedback.”
The app “nudges” or diverts patients away from risky locations, and suggests they make contact with alcohol liaison staff if their drinking is measured to be at danger levels. It sends alerts to NHS staff if a patient stops engaging with the app.
Crucially, it can also “reward” patients who have managed to stay sober by recording the length of their periods of abstinence, and indicate the amount of money and number of calories saved in the process. It compares their drinking levels in the three months before and after medical intervention, and enables patients to record their feelings if they hit “rock bottom”.
“A lot of people never had the chance to demonstrate abstinence before,” Dr Mehta said. “This gives them a way of doing that.
“Most people who have been admitted [to hospital] want to stop drinking. This won’t help someone who doesn’t want to cut back. But if you want to cut back, this can help.
“It can divert them to replacement activity to take the place of alcohol-related activities The number of people this could be relevant to is very large.”