Beyond face-to-face individual counseling: A systematic review on alternative modes of motivational interviewing in substance abuse treatment and prevention

Addict Behav. 2017 Oct;73:216-235. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2017.05.023. Epub 2017 May 22.


Objectives: This systematic review aimed to synthesize the evidence on the effectiveness of motivational interviewing (MI), delivered in modes other than face-to-face individual counseling, in preventing and treating substance abuse related behaviors.

Methods: Four databases (PubMed/MEDLINE, PsycINFO, ISI Web of Science and Cochrane Library) were searched for randomised clinical trials (RCTs) that evaluated the effectiveness of alternative modes of MI (other than face-to-face individual counseling) in preventing and treating substance abuse. Eligible studies were rated on methodological quality and their findings were qualitatively synthesized.

Results: A total of 25 articles (on 22 RCTs) were eligible for this review. Beyond face-to-face counseling, telephone was the most frequently used medium for delivering MI (11 studies), followed by Internet communication (4 studies) and short message service (SMS) (2 studies). Mail was incorporated as a supplement in one of the studies for telephone MI. In contrast to one-to-one individual counseling, group MI was adopted in 5 studies. The effectiveness of telephone MI in treating substance abuse was supported by all of the published RCTs we located. Internet-based MI was effective in preventing and treating alcoholism, but its outcome appeared to be inconsistent for smoking cessation and poor for abstinence from illicit drugs. SMS-based MI appeared to be useful for controlling tobacco and drinking. Group MI was attempted for quitting alcohol and drugs, with mixed findings on its outcomes.

Conclusions: Collectively, the studies reviewed indicate that telephone MI is a promising mode of intervention in treating and preventing substance abuse. The effectiveness of other alternative modes (SMS-based MI, Internet-based MI and group MI) remains inconclusive given the controversial findings and a limited number of studies. By synthesizing the currently available evidence, this systematic review suggested that telephone MI might be considered as an alternative to face-to-face MI for treating and preventing substance abuse. Further research is needed to investigate the effectiveness of SMS-based MI, Internet MI, group MI and other alternative modes. Studies with methodological rigor and incorporating MI fidelity measures have great potential to advance the understanding in this field.

Keywords: Behavior change; Controlled trial; Health promotion; Motivational interviewing; Randomized; Substance abuse.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Counseling / methods
  • Health Promotion / methods
  • Humans
  • Motivational Interviewing / methods*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Substance-Related Disorders / prevention & control*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / rehabilitation
  • Telemedicine / methods
  • Telephone