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Online Alcoholism Programs Show Modest Success: Report

January 28, 2011

Reuters reports that some alcoholics may drink less when using certain computer programs, according to a new report published in the journal Addiction.

British researchers, looking through earlier research, found that heavy drinkers were able to slightly reduce their weekly consumption.

But not all of the studies they analyzed had positive results, and those that were had limitations, the team reported.

However, these computer-based interventions show promise and could help the estimated 17.6 million Americans who struggle with alcoholism.

“From the user’s perspective, the intervention is essentially free, assuming they have access to the Internet,” Zarnie Khadjesari, of University College London’s E-health Unit, who worked on the new report, told Reuters Health in an e-mail.

“Use of these interventions compared with in-person counseling also eliminates any travel costs, or time taken off work to attend appointments,” said Khadjesari.

Previous research has shown that doctors can help curb excessive drinking when the problem is identified and tackled early on. But alcoholism is often identified too late for brief interventions to make much of a difference.

Khadjesari and her colleagues searched medical literatures for studies on computer-based interventions. They were able to find 24 studies that ranged widely in size, involving more than 5,600 participants overall. The specific interventions also varied. Some provided little more than information, while others had interactive games and videos that passed on health messages to users.

Sixteen of the studies showed treatments helped people slash drinking by an average of 26 grams per week, or about two cans of beer.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines heavy drinking as more than two drinks per day for men, and more than one for women.

But many of the studies reported their data in a way that could potentially make the effect seem bigger than it is, the researchers cautioned.

On the other hand, most of the reports so far have been limited to students, for whom the intervention appears to work less well, the researchers said.

Khadjesari said more research is needed, given the many advantages of computer-based interventions should they actually be effective. “They offer convenience, flexibility of use, low cost, and privacy, which is particularly important in reducing the stigma associated with seeking help for an alcohol problem,” she said.

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