The results of a recently released five-year trial from the University of Michigan Injury Center discovered that short interventions by hospital staff or computer programs correlated with decreases in underage alcohol consumption.

Patients ages 14-20 admitted to the emergency department were asked to report on their drinking behaviors, and researchers evaluated whether or not their behaviors were considered risky.

Those whom researchers found to be “risky drinkers” were then randomly assigned to receive a short intervention by means of a therapist or a computer program.

Associate Psychiatry Prof. Maureen Walton, one of the study’s lead authors, outlined the research metrics:

“We asked them three questions about how many drinks per week they have and how many days per week that they drink, and we asked them about binge drinking, which for youth is five or more drinks in one occasion,” she said. “Just based on the responses to those questions, we determine what’s risky drinking.”

The results of the trial were overwhelmingly positive, as both outlets of intervention proved effective in reducing alcohol consumption and drinking-related consequences.

Particularly promising was the effectiveness of the computer program, which was significantly able to reduce the frequency of alcohol-related injuries. According to the study, a brief computer intervention correlated with a decrease in the instances of driving under the influence in the 12-month follow-up period.

“The idea that technology can be used to deliver health interventions, not just for alcohol as it can be used for other behaviors as well, is an exciting way to address health behaviors in a low-cost way,” Walton said.

Medical School student Stephan Diljak, co-president of the University’s chapter of the American Medical Student Association, said the potential of increasing the role of technology in mitigating behavior is a “cool idea.”

“It seems to me that it sounds very similar to methods that have been proven to work to get people to quit smoking,” he said. “This sort of thing has more of an effect than family or friends on getting people to quit. I definitely believe that it could be a valuable way to get people to change their behavior for the better of their health.”

The results of the trial are promising, but there is still a long road ahead before any policy can be implemented, including the need for repetition of the trial.

“I don’t think it will immediately change practice,” Walton said. “I think changing practice in clinical care takes time. One of the limitations of the study is that it was conducted in a single emergency department setting and before you would implement this as part of clinical care we would like to see it replicated.”

Walton and her team are also currently applying for funding to attempt to replicate their findings in eight emergency departments across the country.

Medical School student Shai Madjar said broadening the study’s scope could potentially change the delivery of health interventions in the long run.

“From a medical point of view, I think that it’s really hard to change people’s behavior — even risky behavior,” he said. “In the hospital, you often have so little time talk to people, so if you can show that a brief intervention like the ones discussed in the trial can have an impact that stays true over time that would be really important.”

This ability for a computer intervention to have such a significant effect on behavior could have long-term effects on how patients and doctors interact. Walton added that the medical community will undoubtedly continue to look into ways to curb underage drinking — an issue the University has also grappled with in recent years.

“I think there’s a real interest in medical studies, including the emergency department, in reducing injury and alcohol is a key risk factor in injury and therefore I think that a lot of hospital personnel are very committed to this issue,” Walton said. 

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