Promises Treatment Centers's business consists of providing alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs in cushy and picturesque settings that attract celebrities (Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan reportedly have checked in) and other big spenders who can dish out as much as $2,000 a day for treatment.
Yet despite the glitz, Promises's success depends on helping patients avoid relapses when they go home. The company's two Los Angeles–area centers get about 60 percent of their business from referrals from mental health professionals, former clients, and staff. After all, the centers -- which treat about 350 people a year -- can't count on much repeat business (assuming they do their job right). Enter the iPhone, a device that a great number of Promises's patients own and something that is always nearby when they venture into postrehab living. Why not, wondered David Sack, CEO of Promises's parent company, Elements Behavioral Health, develop an iPhone app to help Promises's patients, and others in recovery, battle the urges to relapse -- and generate some buzz and goodwill for Promises at the same time? "Our clients tend to be early adopters," Sack says, "and we had a tool that we weren't using."
Last spring, Sack and his vice president of Internet marketing,Vera Appleyard, got to work. After brainstorming different features, they decided to use the app to address two critical challenges faced by people in recovery.
First, research has shown that alcoholism affects prospective memory, or the ability to remember to perform specific tasks. Withdrawal only exacerbates this condition. So the app's developers designed a calendar to help users keep track of their meetings with 12-step groups. They can share those meetings' times and locations with other app users and import meeting information from others. (An alert that notifies users of upcoming meetings is expected in an updated version.)
Users can also scroll through a directory of regional 12-step organizations and with one finger tap call to get up-to-date times and dates of meetings. "At Promises, we take them to meetings every night, so they become familiar with those in the L.A. area," Sack says. "But half of our patients are from outside California. When they leave, they are starting from scratch again." Promises would have preferred to provide meeting locations and times. But no central database of 12-step meetings exists -- and Promises decided that creating one would have been too onerous.
The second goal was to address one of the toughest challenges of recovery: developing the self-awareness to recognize the feelings or situations that are most likely to trigger the desire to drink or get high. The app's Visual Journal tab includes a tool that lets users track their moods, challenges, and accomplishments. Appleyard understood from her own experience that the more she has to type, the less frequently she uses an app. So she created a library of 43 icons that can be selected with one tap of the finger. Two clenched fists, for example, symbolize frustration, while a blue smiling face represents contentment. "Recovery is about staying in the moment," Appleyard says, "so having something available to you at all times is critical. The immediacy is really important."
Released in June, the iPromises Recovery Companion is free, and though it doesn't generate revenue for the company, it is aimed at bolstering Promises's reputation among patients and doctors. About 4,000 people have downloaded the app. "We didn't expect it to be at the top of iTunes, because it's for a very, very niche audience," Appleyard says. "But we're happy with initial adoption." The company plans to increase that number by partnering with a popular recovery community social network on a contest to find the best feature to include in the app's next iteration. The prize for the winner? An iPad.