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Sweden: Digital intervention could help reduce alcohol intake

Sweden: Digital intervention could help reduce alcohol intake

Engineering and Technology
By E&T editorial staff
August 5, 2022

Swedish researchers have developed a digital tool that they believe could help people reduce their alcohol consumption.

The study by researchers at Linköping University has shown that a digital support tool on a smartphone can help individuals struggling to reduce their consumption to seek help online through these means.

“At the beginning of the study, the participants said it was very important for them to reduce their alcohol consumption. But most said they didn’t know how to do it,” said Marcus Bendtsen, an associate professor at the university.

The lead of the study added that those who took part in the study and got access to digital support felt more self-assured about how they could go about actually changing their behaviour.

Bendtsen believes that there is too little discussion about concrete methods of creating long-lasting change, warning that messages and communicating the risks of various behaviours aren’t enough.

In Sweden, the state regulates the sale of alcohol, and the tax on alcohol is relatively high. Despite this, alcohol consumption has remained at the same level for a long time.

Around 3 in 10 adults, or 3 million Swedes, drink alcohol in such a way that health experts classify it as risky drinking. In such cases, the risk of diseases such as cancer, stroke and heart problems is considerably higher.

People who are risky drinkers are also at a much higher risk of other physical and psychological negative consequences, and so are family members and other people close to the drinker, according to researchers.

The researchers behind the study, published in the journal BMC Medicine, looked for a new way to reach those who want help to drink less.

“People who want to quit smoking are encouraged and supported by those around them. But there is stigma around wanting to stop drinking alcohol,” Bendtsen explained. “There is a common conception that one should be able to handle one’s own alcohol consumption, and many don’t seek help, even if they want to change their behaviour.”

Digital support, such as a mobile app or support online, could be one way to reach more people who need help. And such tools can be scaled up and used by many, without costs increasing much, researchers have said.

The team added they can also work better for people who do not want to turn to the healthcare system because they can use a digital tool without personal contact. No one else needs to know that you use the tool, reducing the stigma barrier to seeking help.

To investigate whether their digital tool could contribute to reduced alcohol intake, the researchers reached out to people at the very moment when they were motivated to reduce their alcohol consumption.

They recruited the study participants online through targeted adverts shown to people looking for information about how to drink less alcohol. The researchers randomly allocated those who took part in the study into two groups.

The team immediately gave one group access to the new digital tool, meanwhile offering the other group existing web-based resources and asking them to motivate themselves to reduce their consumption. They later received access to the digital tool.

Those who were immediately offered digital support received a message every Sunday, which encouraged them to assess their alcohol consumption during the past week. After participants had reported their drinking, they received feedback and access to several tools.

The tools included help participants set goals for themselves and keep track of their alcohol consumption over time, according to the researchers.

Participants could also learn more about the social risks of being under the influence of alcohol, and the risks to one’s own health. They could also write messages to themselves and choose when to receive them – for example, a reminder to take it easy with the drinking on a certain day or a motivational reminder about why they wanted to drink less.

The research team said the effect of the digital support tool, after four months’ use, was comparable to other digital interventions from international studies – but also a little better than the evidence for face-to-face interventions.

Bendtsen explained: “Those who had access to the digital tool had roughly 25 per cent lower alcohol consumption than the group which didn’t, which is a slightly larger effect than we expected.

“This kind of tool won’t change the overall societal situation with alcohol consumption, but it is a very good tool for individuals who want to change their own lives.”

The researchers are now developing an app to make the tool available to individuals who feel the need for it. They also aim to adapt the app to individual needs.