Inventory and Analysis of Controlled Trials of Mobile Phone Applications Targeting Substance Use Disorders: A Systematic Review

Front Psychiatry. 2021 Feb 22;12:622394. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2021.622394. eCollection 2021.


Background: Less than 20% of people with addictions have access to adequate treatment. Mobile health could improve access to care. No systematic review evaluates effectiveness of mobile health applications for addiction. Objectives: First aim was to describe controlled trials evaluating the effectiveness of smartphone applications targeting substance use disorders and addictive behaviors. Secondly, we aimed to understand how the application produced changes in behavior and craving management. Method: A systematic review based on PRISMA recommendations was conducted on MEDLINE, CENTRAL, and PsycINFO. Studies had to be controlled trials concerning addictive disorders (substance/behavior), mobile application-based interventions, assessing effectiveness or impact of those applications upon use, published after 2008. Relevant information was systematically screened for synthesis. Quality and risk of bias were evaluated with JADAD score. Results: Search strategy retrieved 22 articles (2014-2019) corresponding to 22 applications targeting tobacco, alcohol, other substances and binge eating disorder. Control groups had access to usual treatments or a placebo-application or no treatment. Eight applications showed reduced use. Most of the applications informed about risks of use and suggestions for monitoring use. Twelve applications managed craving. Discussion: Heterogeneity limited study comparisons. Duration of studies was too short to predict sustainable results. A reduction of craving seemed related to a reduction in use. Conclusion: There is a lack of robust and comparable studies on mHealth applications for addiction treatment. Such applications could become significant contributors in clinical practice in the future so longer-termed double-blind studies are needed. Targeting craving to prevent relapse should be systematic.

Keywords: efficacy; mHealth; mobile applications; substance use disorder; systematic review.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review