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mHealth Study Will Test An App’s Ability to Help Smokers Quit

Researchers at the University of Oklahoma are launching a digital health study that will measure the effectiveness of an mHealth app in intervening at the right time to help smokers kick the habit.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Researchers at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine are launching a five-year study to determine whether a personalized mHealth app can help smokers kick the habit.

Backed by a $2.7 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, the Oklahoma Tobacco Research Center, a program at OU Medicine’s Stephenson Cancer Center, will study the effectiveness of the Smart-T (Smart Treatment) app on a cohort of 450 volunteers. Half of the group will use the app, while the other half will use traditional smoking cessation tactics.

The app is one of dozens, if not hundreds, of mHealth and telehealth efforts aimed at helping smokers quit – and, in a larger sense, providing the foundation for a connected health platform that could help those with drug abuse issues reduce their dependency and improve their lifestyles.

There are an estimated 40 million smokers in the US, of which roughly 500,000 die each year from causes attributed to that habit. Research indicates about 80 percent of smokers want to quit, but only about half try to quit and roughly 5 percent to 10 percent are successful. With in-person counseling, that number rises to between 30 percent and 40 percent.

Developed several years ago by Michael Businelle, PhD, of the University of Texas School of Public Health, Smart-T is part of connected health platform that targets improving health and wellness outcomes through behavior change. The app delivers a set of questions to a user’s smartphone five times a day, then delivers personalized messages of support based on the answers to those digital health surveys.

“People spend a lot of time on their phones, particularly texting and using apps,” Businelle, now part of the OU Medicine faculty and the study’s coordinator, said in a press release from OU Medicine. “I see health behavior change services like smoking cessation becoming more and more mobile.”

“As a clinical psychologist, my expertise is in helping people change behaviors they want to change,” he added. “Mobile technology holds much potential for helping people who want to quit smoking.”

In an earlier version of the study, Businelle and his colleagues sent out surveys of about 25 questions to a small group of volunteers. Eventually they narrowed the questions down to six, and developed a “smoking lapse risk estimator” that evaluates a user’s urge to smoke within hours of taking the survey. That estimator is then used to determine what type of tailored message is sent.

The results of those surveys and the risk estimator produce what Businelle calls an ecological momentary assessment (EMA), or a real time snapshot of a person’s physical and mental state. An mHealth platform could conceivably add physiological, environmental and even sociological data to further refine the EMA.

“Our research showed that the risk estimator predicted about 80 percent of all smoking lapses within four hours of the lapse,” Businelle said. “Sometimes the risk estimator would know about the potential for relapse before the person was aware of it.”

He also noted that 22 percent of those who used the app quit smoking, compared to 15 percent who used other methods (including the National Cancer Institute app). Those results led to an NCI grant to expand the study.

The latest study will also include a diagnostic attachment, a breathalyzer-type device that attaches to the user’s phone and measures the amount of carbon monoxide in one’s breath.

Such sensors have been around since late 2017, when the US Food and Drug Administration granted 510(k) clearance to the OTC breath sensor developed by Carrot.

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