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Q&A Judson Brewer: Mindfulness app targets addiction

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Judson Brewer MD PhD
Director of Research, Center for Mindfulness

Judson Brewer MD PhD is the Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness and associate professor in medicine and psychiatry at UMass Medical School. He also is adjunct faculty at Yale University, and a research affiliate at MIT. A psychiatrist and internationally known expert in mindfulness training for addictions, Brewer has developed and tested novel mindfulness programs for addictions, including both in-person and app-based treatments.

Under the leadership of Dr. Judson Brewer, an associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Claritas Mind Sciences is working to bridge the gap between mindfulness training and the epidemic of addiction sweeping America — including among pregnant women.

According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, almost 5 percent of pregnant women reported using illicit drugs in the previous 30 days, including heroin and opiates. Similarly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 10 percent of pregnant women smoke in the final trimester of pregnancy.

The cost of this is hard to calculate, but it’s immense. Babies born to mothers who smoke or use illicit drugs are more likely to suffer from a wide range of problems, including long-term health issues like asthma, and spend longer in the hospital.

Through Claritas, Brewer has developed an app that incorporates proven mindfulness techniques into a simple and easy-to-follow daily program. The app isn’t exclusively aimed at pregnant women or parents, but as a non-medical option, it’s a great idea for parents and moms-to-be who want help kicking the habit. Here, Dr. Brewer answers questions about how the app works and what to expect.

Bundoo: Mindfulness has been gaining a lot of attention recently as a way to help people deal with stress by being more present in day-to-day life and paying more careful attention to thoughts and feelings in the moment. How does mindfulness intersect with addiction research?

Judson Brewer: When we first started studying mindfulness research in 2006, there were no published studies on mindfulness and addiction. The first studies were on alcohol and cocaine addiction, and we’ve had a number of great papers published since then. Our in-person studies for smoking found that 36 percent of people had quit smoking at the end of treatment, and 31 percent had stuck with the positive change four months later. That’s versus 5 percent for the gold standard of traditional addiction treatment.

As you realized mindfulness worked, what made you decide to release it as an app?

We originally put together a manual, but we found that people don’t follow manuals well. Instead, there’s a growing trend of delivering treatment in context. People don’t learn to smoke in a therapist’s office, so they’re not going to learn to quit in a therapist’s office. With the app, we wanted to develop a high-fidelity treatment. The app takes the mindfulness manual and cuts it into bite-sized pieces. There are daily mindfulness exercises and tracking tools.

Do insurance companies reimburse for the app?

We know some people have been able to successfully submit claims. We’d love to have insurance companies recommend it as a first-line treatment, but we’re still in the early stages.

How can people get the app? And how has it been received so far?

The app is available on our website at a cost of about $1 a day. We haven’t actually done our formal product launch yet. It’s all word of mouth, and we’ve had really great uptake from all over the world. We just added in-app coaching, and we’ve been surprised to see people from all over the world, from Europe, South America, and India.

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