Here’s how it works: A patient struggling not to gamble could open the app and rate the strength of their gambling urges, view messages from their therapist, go through guided meditation or access other treatment options. They could also use the app to track their treatment’s progress, keep journal entries and provide information about their lifestyle.
“Think of it sort of like a first-aid kit for problem gambling,” said Ardeshir Rahman, program manager for the behavioral technologies lab at UCLA’s Gambling Studies Program, which is developing the app. “The app has a lot of built-in tools and techniques that allow people to manage their behaviors in a controlled way.”
Rahman said developers were still in the early testing stages, but if all goes well, the app could be ready around this time next year. He hopes the tool can improve treatment for problem gamblers by generating data on patients’ behavior in real time.
For example, the app contains a “triggers” section that patients can use when they feel the urge to gamble. The section asks them what kind of trigger they’re experiencing — do they want to gamble because of certain internal feelings, or is it something like an external object? The app also prompts patients to rate the intensity of their gambling urge, and to choose from a series of descriptions that best fit their current mood.
Using such information, a therapist might then be able to draw conclusions about the patient’s gambling compulsions much faster than usual. Rahman said that, in his team’s clinical trial, a therapist was able to note a correlation between time of day, mood and the strength of a particular patient’s gambling urges after just one week of using the app.
“You can make a conclusion that this particular patient, around 2 a.m., was feeling very bored and then had very strong urges to gamble,” Rahman said. “That’s data we never had before.”
A therapist can use such information to help develop treatment strategies. In the case of the person being bored around 2 a.m., that meant improving the patient’s sleeping habits as a way of also improving his or her gambling habits.
The UCLA team is conducting a feasibility study, in which they’re testing the app on a handful of patients to see if it has a positive effect. The next step is to test it on a larger scale.
Preliminary results suggest that the app helps improve some key areas like reducing the frequency of a patient’s gambling and the intensity of their urges over time, Rahman said. What remains unclear is whether it’s any more effective than standard therapy - a question the researchers will address later on down the road.
However, Rahman doesn’t think the app necessarily needs to improve those metrics more than the usual therapy would. At the very least, he hopes it can complement that work by introducing something that’s difficult to quantify: data that enhances certain aspects of treatment. “Worst-case scenario, this becomes a way for us to track patients’ behaviors,” Rahman said. “Even that would be a huge improvement over what we do today.”
Carol O’Hare, executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, learned about Rahman’s app when he presented it at a conference in Las Vegas last month. She said she was particularly excited that the innovation facilitates more communication between therapists and patients because “you can’t be sitting in your therapist’s office every day.”
“Typically, you go to your counselor’s office every week and get good ideas, good tools to work with, and then you’re kind of out there on your own for a week,” she said. “What this does is it actually lets the client do more to record and document the experiences, the feelings, the urges and the things that are happening for them throughout the week.”
O’Hare admits that the app will not suit everyone. Some patients won’t take to it, and that’s fine because “all treatment is varied,” she said. Some treatment providers may be hesitant to adopt it, too - they’ll need support no matter what.
But overall, O’Hare is optimistic the app can be a useful tool for therapists to employ when appropriate. She also sees potential for it helping prevention efforts around problem gambling.
Rahman suggested the same thing. One day, he said, anyone may be able to download a version of the app — without some of the more therapy-specific elements — to manage their gambling habits.