Feasibility and Effects of Digital Interventions to Support People in Recovery From Substance Use Disorders: Systematic Review

J Med Internet Res. 2018 Aug 23;20(8):e255. doi: 10.2196/jmir.9873.


Background: The development and evaluation of digital interventions aimed at preventing or treating substance use-related problems and disorders is a rapidly growing field. Previous reviews of such interventions reveal a large and complex picture with regard to targeted users, use, and efficacy.

Objective: The objective of this review was to investigate the feasibility and effects of interventions developed specifically for digital platforms. These interventions are focused on supporting people in recovery from substance use disorders by helping them achieve their substance use goals and develop a more satisfying life situation.

Methods: The review is based on a systematic search in MEDLINE, Embase, PsycInfo, and Cochrane Library databases. Of the 1149 identified articles, 722 were excluded as obviously not relevant. Of the remaining articles, 21 were found to be previous reviews, 269 were on interventions aimed at reducing hazardous alcohol or cannabis use, and 94 were on digitized versions of standard treatment methods. The remaining 43 articles were all read in full and systematically scored by both authors.

Results: The 43 articles cover 28 unique interventions, of which 33 have been published after 2013. The interventions are aimed at different target groups (defined by age, substance, or comorbidity). Based on the number of features or modules, the interventions can be categorized as simple or complex. Fourteen of the 18 simple interventions and 9 of the 10 complex interventions have been studied with quantitative controlled methodologies. Thirteen of the 18 simple interventions are integrated in other treatment or support systems, mainly delivered as mobile phone apps, while 6 of the 10 complex interventions are designed as stand-alone interventions, most often delivered on a platform combining desktop/Web and mobile phone technologies. The interventions were generally easy to implement, but in most cases the implementation of the complex interventions was found to be dependent on sustained organizational support. Between 70% and 90% of the participants found the interventions to be useful and easy to use. The rates of sustained use were also generally high, except for simple interventions with an open internet-based recruitment and some information and education modules of the complex interventions. Across all interventions, slightly more than half (55%) of the studies with control groups generated positive findings on 1 or more substance use outcomes, with 57% of the interventions also found to be efficacious in 1 or more studies. In the positive studies, effects were typically in the small to moderate range, with a few studies yielding larger effects. Largely due to the inclusion of stronger control conditions, studies of simple interventions were less likely to produce positive effects.

Conclusions: The digital interventions included in this review are in general feasible but are not consistently effective in helping people in recovery from substance use disorder reduce their substance use or achieving other recovery goals.

Keywords: digital interventions; effects; feasibility; recovery support; substance use disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Cell Phone / trends*
  • Feasibility Studies
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Mobile Applications / trends*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / pathology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / therapy*