6 Substance Abuse Apps Helping Us Battle Addictions

June 3. 2019. 8 mins read

We talked before about the Johari window which looks at “how you think other people see you” and compares that to “how people actually see you.” Americans may not realize that foreigners do take notice of how many pills we’re popping over here. There’s literally a pill for everything, and it’s no surprise that the country has developed a serious addiction problem. The 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health spells out the problem pretty clearly for the world to see.

  • Nearly 15% of Americans are current cigarette smokers
  • More than 20% of Americans are binge drinkers
  • About 3.5% of the population misuses opiates
  • Over 90% of those with an addiction began drinking, smoking or using illicit drugs before the age of 18.

The other thing visitors quickly notice are the 33% of obese Americans who are addicted to food. It’s not a good look.

In today’s America, this might quickly get spun into some sort of political talking point, but let’s focus on what we can do today. Firstly, we need to differentiate between the people who want help and the people who don’t. As we talked about before, most alcoholics need to decide themselves to stop drinking. And over 95% of those who need treatment for alcoholism do not feel they need treatment. For those who do want help, we need to use technology to create tools that make it easier to overcome addictions. If we’re able to tackle weight loss using psychology and artificial intelligence, we ought to be able to use technology to help solve our addiction problems. Let’s take a look at six substance abuse apps trying to tackle America’s addiction problem and make money while doing so.

Chrono Therapeutics

Founded in 2004, Hayward startup Chrono Therapeutics has taken in $82.5 million in funding so far to develop a “smart nicotine patch,” called the Chrono Quit Smoking Solution (CQSS2), which has a number of advantages over traditional nicotine patches. The CQSS2 can provide “off” periods (periods in which little to no nicotine is delivered), which is superior to typical methods which provide continuous delivery. “Another major benefit is the automatic dosing, which provides higher drug dosage at specific times of the day,” says a Phase 2 study which looked at the safety and efficacy of the treatment platform.

Chrono Therapeutics analyzes the peak hours that people crave a substance. Studies show that the first craving usually comes in the morning. The “Dosing Patch” from Chrono Therapeutics can be worn overnight and is programmed to supply the wearer with nicotine just before waking up, thereby lowering the desire for a morning cigarette. Nicotine is also supplied via the patch at midday as well as early evening, generally around meal times. The amount of nicotine gradually tapers off as the end of the program nears.

Chrono Therapeutics substance abuse analysis
Analysis of peak hours when patients experience intense cravings. Source: Chrono Therapeutics

Chrono Therapeutics also provides patients with 24/7 access to behavioral support via their mobile app. Since we last featured this group in our article 10 Mobile Health Startups Making You Feel Better, Chrono Therapeutics has expanded their pipeline to develop solutions for patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease and those with prescription opioid dependence.

DynamiCare Health

Click for company websiteFounded in 2016, Boston startup DynamiCare Health has taken in $4.1 million in seed funding so far to develop an app that gives you random drug tests. The DynamiCare app works by prompting its users to record the results of random drug tests conducted either via a Bluetooth-connected breathalyzer or saliva test strips for specific drugs like opioids, amphetamines, PCP, and cocaine. Both situations require the patients to perform the tests on camera to prove that they were the ones who actually underwent the test. All results are recorded and then confirmed by DynamiCare Health staff. The app also connects with the phone GPS of the user to help track their attendance at recovery meetings.

DynamiCare Health dashboard
Snapshot of the app dashboard. Source: DynamiCare Health

It’s not just about using the stick but also the carrot. A rewards system is integrated into the DynamiCare app and then sent to a reloadable debit card for members to use for purchasing things – except in places like bars or liquor stores. The sobriety rewards increase as the member remains on track and go immediately to zero when a member skips or fails a test. 

The approach to combat substance abuse using positive reinforcement is something called “contingency management” and there’s a comprehensive review of the literature that speaks highly of these methods.

Contingency management (CM) interventions wherein financial incentives are provided contingent on objective evidence of behavior change have shown impressive levels of efficacy across a wide range of substance abuse disorders.

For offenders who are in trouble with the law, why not give them the option of choosing between DynamiCare (some carrot, some stick) and court-ordered AA meetings (mostly suck)? Only those who truly want to abstain would choose the former given they need to take on the risk of being randomly tested and failing. If the system can ensure sobriety without any loopholes, then surely there are family or friends of addicts who would gladly pay for a program that works given that it’s probably going to be much cheaper than rehab.

Pear Therapeutics

Click for company websiteFounded in 2013, Boston startup Pear Therapeutics has taken in $134 million in funding so far to develop apps that change behavior in a positive way using loads of big data analytics. It’s something that’s been coined “digital therapeutics,” and here’s how it’s defined by the Digital Therapeutics Alliance:

Digital therapeutics deliver evidence-based therapeutic interventions to patients that are driven by high quality software programs to prevent, manage, or treat a medical disorder or disease.

The term “evidence-based” implies that the technology has been validated by studies that prove effectiveness. The two apps developed by Pear Therapeutics so far are reSET, which focuses on substance abuse disorders, and reSET-O, which focuses specifically on opioid use disorders. Both apps utilize Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in conjunction with the outpatient treatment the members are enrolled in. Pear Therapeutics conducted a controlled clinical trial for the reSET-O software and within a 12-week test period involving 170 patients, the company recorded a significant rise in the amount of time patients spend in outpatient programs.

The apps can only be downloaded upon approval from a doctor or clinician and are not designed as standalone treatments or replacements for the actual care the patients receive from licensed medical professionals. A key function of the apps is to provide critical support for patients who need immediate assistance for their “cravings.” A good example is when a patient wakes up in the middle of the night craving a fix but nobody is available to provide support.

Pear Therapeutics reSET platform
Snapshot of the app as seen by the patients (left) and clinicians (right). Source: Pear Therapeutics

To help patients track their progress, the apps allow them to record every instance they experience cravings along with the associated triggers. Both apps can be configured to send reminders for tests, meetings, or medications. Additionally, a reward system – ranging from receiving digital smiley faces to gift cards from Starbucks – recognizes patients every time they pass drug screenings or complete therapy sessions.

Update 12/09/2020: Pear Therapeutics has raised $80 million in Series D funding to accelerate reimbursement coverage for its three FDA-cleared products. This brings the company’s total funding to $214 million to date.


Click for company websiteFounded in 2015, Silicon Valley startup Carrot has raised $30.8 million from investors including Johnson and Johnson (JNJ) to develop a six-stage program called Pivot which was recently featured in our article on “7 Wearables for Treating Mental Health Conditions.” Users of the program are given access to the Pivot smartphone app, an OTC carbon monoxide breath sensor, and personal coaching.

Similar to the other self-help apps that use cognitive behavioral therapy, Pivot provides a personalized approach to encourage members to complete the entire program. Pairing its app with the sensor, the system’s dashboard shows you a snapshot of your sensor readings every day along with information on how much time and money you’ve spent smoking. Conversely, the app will indicate how much time and money you’ve saved once it detects that you stopped smoking. In other words, the app will even work for people who are experts in quitting smoking because they’ve done it so many times.

Marigold Health

Click for company websiteFounded in 2017, Boston startup Marigold Health has taken in $1.2 million in funding so far to develop chat support groups that connect behavioral health experts with patients to provide them with 24/7 access to support. The app was inspired by one of the co-founder’s friends who was suffering from depression and noted that the gap between weekly therapy sessions tends to be a very difficult time for patients. This specific gap is what the Marigold Health app intends to address. Aside from depression, the app also aims to help those suffering from PTSD, grief, and substance abuse.

Marigold Health dashboard
A snapshot of how clinicians spot potentially harmful conversations among members. Source: Marigold Health

Prior to providing access to patients to their app, Marigold Health ensures that the users will be placed into the appropriate support group composed of roughly a dozen people going through a similar situation. The patients would also be more thoroughly assessed by the professional therapist assigned as the moderator for the group. The assessment is conducted via one-on-one chats and the results of the diagnostic forms included in the process.

Aside from the online chats, the app also lets users connect with their moderators and other group members via VoIP group phone conversations. However, the most important feature of the app is the language monitoring system which uses natural language processing to monitor group chats and put a stop to any potentially dangerous interactions in real time. Marigold Health is implementing their pilot program in collaboration with John Hopkins which is where their founder dropped out of.

Workit Health

Click for company websiteFounded in 2015, Ann Arbor, Michigan startup Workit Health has raised $3 million, including funding from BlueCross BlueShield Venture Partners, to develop a mobile platform for treating addiction over live chat and video. Pretty much like Marigold Health and other telepsychiatry companies for your mental health, this app provides an on-demand service that can be conveniently accessed by patients anytime and anywhere.

While several substance abuse apps are readily available, one of the notable things about Workit Health is the personal touch from its founders. Both are open about their history as recovering addicts. In fact, they met at a recovery center in 2009 and that’s where they decided to apply the lessons they learned to come up with a treatment strategy combined with technology. Just like the weight loss studies they did at Noom, you can do all the “contingency management” you want, but people are always more likely to behave better when someone’s watching. As the old saying goes, if you want to keep a Mormon from drinking your beer when you’re out fishing, just bring two of them.


Substance abuse is said to cost ‘Murica more than $740 billion every year due to falling productivity levels in the workplace, increasing healthcare expenditures, and of course all that crime-related stuff. With relapse rates for substance addiction estimated to be somewhere between 40% and 60%, apps can provide a support system for the time you’re most likely to relapse. Constant support seems like a theme throughout these apps, along with the use of cognitive behavioral therapy that leans more towards the carrot than the stick. If the technology works, people will pay for it to sober up and investors will make moneySocially responsible investing as it’s supposed to be.


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