Positive experiences of telephone-delivered interventions: a highly accessible treatment option for people with alcohol problems

10 Aug 2020

counsellors helping clients via telehealth at turning point head office

Researchers from Turning Point and Monash University have found that Australians with alcohol use problems report positive experiences of receiving structured psychological interventions by telephone. A new study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction found a telephone-delivered intervention for alcohol use problems, Ready2Change (R2C), to be an easily accessible and highly acceptable treatment model that offers new opportunities to engage in treatment not typically offered in traditional alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment settings.  

While uptake of telehealth by the AOD sector has historically been slow, the current unprecedented surge in adoption of telephone and online treatment globally due to the COVID19 pandemic demonstrates the removal of the many barriers to its use, highlighting a need to understand how people experience treatment offered in this modality. Ready2Change is a telephone-delivered program run by Turning Point, a national addiction treatment and research centre based in Melbourne. The qualitative study examined the experiences of 35 participants with mild-to-moderate alcohol use disorder, who engaged in R2C, a multiple-session telephone-delivered psychological intervention provided by the same psychologist for up to six sessions, with weekend and after-hours appointments available. 

Participants reported that the telephone-delivered intervention helped them to manage their alcohol use, with 60 percent reporting reduced alcohol intake. Participants described that the flexibility of the program in providing tailored treatment that met their own treatment needs and goals was essential in facilitating this reduction. Many also reported being able to develop strong rapport with their psychologist despite counselling being provided via telephone.

As described by one participant: “I felt very relaxed… like I was talking to a friend but over the phone. I could be open and honest, and I didn’t have to avoid someone’s gaze… It just felt a little bit easier.”

There are many barriers to people seeking help for alcohol use problems, including stigma, time constraints and privacy concerns, which means that on average, there is a delay in help-seeking for over a decade. Telephone-delivered models of care offer a convenient, cost effective way to treat people with alcohol use problems and provides them with a greater sense of privacy and anonymity.

The study identified several clear advantages of the R2C program, including participants not having to travel to receive treatment, which was particularly important for those living in regional areas, and being able to participate in treatment at times convenient to them, outside of traditional service hours.

As one participant described, “all you have to find in your day is an hour; you don’t have to add all the travelling time.” Not having to participate in face-to-face counselling sessions was also perceived as an advantage, enabling participants to feel more comfortable when speaking about their alcohol use.

R2C is a well-received intervention that provides opportunities for treatment that are not currently available through traditional services. It also presents a scalable solution that can be readily implemented into existing telephone helpline services, with the potential to reach large populations and thus, encourage help-seeking. These features are particularly important at a time where many traditional services are relying on distance-based modalities to continue providing treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study was conducted as part of a large randomised controlled trial of R2C, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.