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      A Therapeutic Relational Agent for Reducing Problematic Substance Use (Woebot): Development and Usability Study


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          Misuse of substances is common, can be serious and costly to society, and often goes untreated due to barriers to accessing care. Woebot is a mental health digital solution informed by cognitive behavioral therapy and built upon an artificial intelligence–driven platform to deliver tailored content to users. In a previous 2-week randomized controlled trial, Woebot alleviated depressive symptoms.


          This study aims to adapt Woebot for the treatment of substance use disorders (W-SUDs) and examine its feasibility, acceptability, and preliminary efficacy.


          American adults (aged 18-65 years) who screened positive for substance misuse without major health contraindications were recruited from online sources and flyers and enrolled between March 27 and May 6, 2020. In a single-group pre/postdesign, all participants received W-SUDs for 8 weeks. W-SUDs provided mood, craving, and pain tracking and modules (psychoeducational lessons and psychotherapeutic tools) using elements of dialectical behavior therapy and motivational interviewing. Paired samples t tests and McNemar nonparametric tests were used to examine within-subject changes from pre- to posttreatment on measures of substance use, confidence, cravings, mood, and pain.


          The sample (N=101) had a mean age of 36.8 years (SD 10.0), and 75.2% (76/101) of the participants were female, 78.2% (79/101) were non-Hispanic White, and 72.3% (73/101) were employed. Participants’ W-SUDs use averaged 15.7 (SD 14.2) days, 12.1 (SD 8.3) modules, and 600.7 (SD 556.5) sent messages. About 94% (562/598) of all completed psychoeducational lessons were rated positively. From treatment start to end, in-app craving ratings were reduced by half (87/101, 86.1% reporting cravings in the app; odds ratio 0.48, 95% CI 0.32-0.73). Posttreatment assessment completion was 50.5% (51/101), with better retention among those who initially screened higher on substance misuse. From pre- to posttreatment, confidence to resist urges to use substances significantly increased (mean score change +16.9, SD 21.4; P<.001), whereas past month substance use occasions (mean change −9.3, SD 14.1; P<.001) and scores on the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test-Concise (mean change −1.3, SD 2.6; P<.001), 10-item Drug Abuse Screening Test (mean change −1.2, SD 2.0; P<.001), Patient Health Questionnaire-8 item (mean change 2.1, SD 5.2; P=.005), Generalized Anxiety Disorder-7 (mean change −2.3, SD 4.7; P=.001), and cravings scale (68.6% vs 47.1% moderate to extreme; P=.01) significantly decreased. Most participants would recommend W-SUDs to a friend (39/51, 76%) and reported receiving the service they desired (41/51, 80%). Fewer felt W-SUDs met most or all of their needs (22/51, 43%).


          W-SUDs was feasible to deliver, engaging, and acceptable and was associated with significant improvements in substance use, confidence, cravings, depression, and anxiety. Study attrition was high. Future research will evaluate W-SUDs in a randomized controlled trial with a more diverse sample and with the use of greater study retention strategies.

          Trial Registration

          ClinicalTrials.gov NCT04096001; http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04096001.

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          Most cited references59

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          Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of the most common mental disorders; however, there is no brief clinical measure for assessing GAD. The objective of this study was to develop a brief self-report scale to identify probable cases of GAD and evaluate its reliability and validity. A criterion-standard study was performed in 15 primary care clinics in the United States from November 2004 through June 2005. Of a total of 2740 adult patients completing a study questionnaire, 965 patients had a telephone interview with a mental health professional within 1 week. For criterion and construct validity, GAD self-report scale diagnoses were compared with independent diagnoses made by mental health professionals; functional status measures; disability days; and health care use. A 7-item anxiety scale (GAD-7) had good reliability, as well as criterion, construct, factorial, and procedural validity. A cut point was identified that optimized sensitivity (89%) and specificity (82%). Increasing scores on the scale were strongly associated with multiple domains of functional impairment (all 6 Medical Outcomes Study Short-Form General Health Survey scales and disability days). Although GAD and depression symptoms frequently co-occurred, factor analysis confirmed them as distinct dimensions. Moreover, GAD and depression symptoms had differing but independent effects on functional impairment and disability. There was good agreement between self-report and interviewer-administered versions of the scale. The GAD-7 is a valid and efficient tool for screening for GAD and assessing its severity in clinical practice and research.
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              The AUDIT alcohol consumption questions (AUDIT-C): an effective brief screening test for problem drinking. Ambulatory Care Quality Improvement Project (ACQUIP). Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test.

              To evaluate the 3 alcohol consumption questions from the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT-C) as a brief screening test for heavy drinking and/or active alcohol abuse or dependence. Patients from 3 Veterans Affairs general medical clinics were mailed questionnaires. A random, weighted sample of Health History Questionnaire respondents, who had 5 or more drinks over the past year, were eligible for telephone interviews (N = 447). Heavy drinkers were oversampled 2:1. Patients were excluded if they could not be contacted by telephone, were too ill for interviews, or were female (n = 54). Areas under receiver operating characteristic curves (AUROCs) were used to compare mailed alcohol screening questionnaires (AUDIT-C and full AUDIT) with 3 comparison standards based on telephone interviews: (1) past year heavy drinking (>14 drinks/week or > or =5 drinks/ occasion); (2) active alcohol abuse or dependence according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Revised Third Edition, criteria; and (3) either. Of 393 eligible patients, 243 (62%) completed AUDIT-C and interviews. For detecting heavy drinking, AUDIT-C had a higher AUROC than the full AUDIT (0.891 vs 0.881; P = .03). Although the full AUDIT performed better than AUDIT-C for detecting active alcohol abuse or dependence (0.811 vs 0.786; P<.001), the 2 questionnaires performed similarly for detecting heavy drinking and/or active abuse or dependence (0.880 vs 0.881). Three questions about alcohol consumption (AUDIT-C) appear to be a practical, valid primary care screening test for heavy drinking and/or active alcohol abuse or dependence.

                Author and article information

                J Med Internet Res
                J Med Internet Res
                Journal of Medical Internet Research
                JMIR Publications (Toronto, Canada )
                March 2021
                23 March 2021
                : 23
                : 3
                : e24850
                [1 ] Stanford Prevention Research Center School of Medicine Stanford University Stanford, CA United States
                [2 ] Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences School of Medicine Stanford University Stanford, CA United States
                [3 ] Department of Epidemiology & Population Health School of Medicine Stanford University Stanford, CA United States
                [4 ] Woebot Health San Francisco, CA United States
                Author notes
                Corresponding Author: Judith J Prochaska jpro@ 123456stanford.edu
                Author information
                ©Judith J Prochaska, Erin A Vogel, Amy Chieng, Matthew Kendra, Michael Baiocchi, Sarah Pajarito, Athena Robinson. Originally published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (http://www.jmir.org), 23.03.2021.

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work, first published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, is properly cited. The complete bibliographic information, a link to the original publication on http://www.jmir.org/, as well as this copyright and license information must be included.

                : 7 October 2020
                : 14 December 2020
                : 19 January 2021
                : 31 January 2021
                Original Paper
                Original Paper

                artificial intelligence,conversational agent,chatbot,addiction,substance misuse,treatment,acceptability,feasibility,craving,psychoeducation,psychotherapeutic,mobile phone


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