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A randomized controlled trial of a therapeutic relational agent for reducing substance misuse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abstract

Background

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted access to treatment for substance use disorders (SUDs), while alcohol and cannabis retail sales increased. During the pandemic, we tested a tailored digital health solution, Woebot-SUDs (W-SUDs), for reducing substance misuse.

Methods

In a randomized controlled trial, we compared W-SUDs for 8 weeks to a waitlist control. U.S. adults (N = 180) who screened positive for substance misuse (CAGE-AID>1) were enrolled June-August 2020. The primary outcome was the change in past-month substance use occasions from baseline to end-of-treatment (EOT). Study retention was 84%. General linear models tested group differences in baseline-to-EOT change scores, adjusting for baseline differences and attrition.

Results

At baseline, the sample (age M = 40, SD = 12, 65% female, 68% non-Hispanic white) averaged 30.2 (SD = 18.6) substance occasions in the past month. Most (77%) reported alcohol problems, 28% cannabis, and 45% multiple substances; 46% reported moderate-to-severe depressive symptoms. Treatment participants averaged 920 in-app text messages (SD = 892, Median = 701); 96% of completed lessons were rated positively; and 88% would recommend W-SUDs. Relative to waitlist, W-SUDs participants significantly reduced past-month substance use occasions (M = -9.1, SE = 2.0 vs. M = -3.3, SE = 1.8; p = .039). Secondary substance use and mood outcomes did not change significantly by group; however, reductions in substance use occasions correlated significantly with increased confidence and fewer substance use problems, cravings, depression and anxiety symptoms, and pandemic-related mental health effects (p-value<.05).

Conclusions

W-SUDs was associated with significant reductions in substance use occasions. Reduction in substance use occasions was associated with better outcomes, including improved mental health. W-SUDs satisfaction was high.

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