Avatar-assisted therapy: a proof-of-concept pilot study of a novel technology-based intervention to treat substance use disorders

Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2017 Sep;43(5):518-524. doi: 10.1080/00952990.2017.1280816. Epub 2017 Feb 17.


Background: Avatar-assisted therapy (AAT) is a novel and emerging technology that uses the Internet to enable clinicians and clients in substance abuse treatment to participate in group counseling sessions from separate and remote locations in real time through the use of avatars and virtual environments.

Objectives: The current study is a pilot proof-of-concept feasibility study involving individuals in outpatient substance abuse treatment. This report addresses two questions: (1) are individuals who present for substance abuse treatment interested in receiving AAT and (2) what factors are associated with better treatment success.

Methods: Individuals who presented at the treatment clinic who met study eligibility criteria, and provided their written informed consent to participate, were included in the current study (N = 59; 78% male).

Results: Twenty-eight (47.5%) participants completed 16 weeks of treatment and attended more sessions compared to non-completers (M = 14.3 vs. 7.5 p < .05). Those individuals who completed treatment were less likely to have a positive urine drug screen at baseline (21.5 vs. 78.6%; p < .05). Furthermore, those individuals who successfully completed treatment were less likely to have positive urine drug screens during treatment compared to those who did not complete (29.7% vs. 70.3%, p < .05). There were no arrests during treatment for completers and non-completers.

Conclusion: Poor retention in substance use disorder treatment has long been a major problem for public health. AAT is a feasible approach that has the potential to expand treatment to individuals who might have difficulty accessing treatment. Moreover, AAT may be appealing to clients who are concerned about anonymity and confidentiality.

Keywords: Avatar-assisted therapy; drug treatment; substance use; technology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Counseling / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Male
  • Pilot Projects
  • Remote Consultation / methods*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / therapy*
  • Therapy, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Treatment Outcome
  • Young Adult