Glass of wine

29 March 2017

A new version of the popular US-designed smartphone app ‘Step Away’ can now be developed and tested to help adults in New Zealand self-manage their hazardous drinking.

University of Auckland Honorary Associate Professor Natalie Walker has received a feasibility grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to determine if six months’ access to a New Zealand Step Away app can reduce the frequency of alcohol abuse in a group of adult hazardous drinkers in Auckland.

The Step Away app is the product of a four-year development effort, funded by the US National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA). The app leads users through coping strategies, monitors how often they drink, identifies ‘triggers’, and gives weekly feedback reports tracking their progress in kicking bad habits. The New Zealand researchers are collaborating with the US team to develop something that works here.

Dr Walker says to date, Step Away is the only publicly available and evidence-based alcohol-related mobile app grounded in sound psychological theory. However, in its current form the app is unsuitable for New Zealand users as it incorporates North American drinking norms and safe drinking guidelines, numerous ‘Americanisms’, and links to US-based care services.

“There are beneficial and cost-effective treatments for people who are drinking at hazardous levels, but few drinkers actually receive help. Mobile phone-based alcohol interventions have the potential to reach a larger number of individuals with alcohol problems and can support self-management of alcohol consumption,” says Dr Walker.

“As yet there hasn’t been a definitive clinical trial of the effectiveness of the Step Away app. With the support of this HRC grant, we can now create a New Zealand version of this app and determine how feasible it is to test using a robust clinical trial design.”

Professor Patrick Dulin, Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage in the US, is a co-investigator on the study. Professor Dulin was the lead developer on the original Step Away app and is currently developing a specific Step Away app version for US veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson says she welcomes steps to support people throughout this difficult change in behaviours, saying there’s a huge cost to New Zealand society from alcohol abuse.

“Twenty per cent of deaths among 15 to 34-year-olds can be attributed to alcohol, mostly from road injuries, while the cost of alcohol-related harm in New Zealand is about $5.3 billion a year or $14.5 million a day, let alone the human costs to the people affected and their families,” says Professor McPherson.

“This study is a smart and cost-effective way to leverage off the considerable research efforts of the NIAA in the US and adapt a New Zealand-specific app that can be fast-tracked to fill a treatment gap here, providing a widely distributed, first point of contact for individuals with an alcohol problem,” she says.

The HRC today announced a combined total of $2 million worth of feasibility grants, up from $1.05 million in 2016.

See below for the full list of 2017 HRC Feasibility Study recipients or to read lay summaries of the research projects, go to and filter for ‘Researcher Initiated Proposals,’ ‘Feasibility Studies’ and ‘2017’.

2017 Feasibility Study Grants

Dr Nigel Harris, Auckland University of Technology
Curriculum-based high-intensity interval training for young adolescents
18 months, $190,967

Dr Stephen Inns, University of Otago, Wellington
Effects of Helicobacter pylori in pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes
24 months, $246,768

Associate Professor Jeremy Krebs, University of Otago, Wellington
Preventing progression from pre-diabetes to type 2 diabetes in New Zealanders
12 months, $248,242

Dr William Levack, University of Otago, Wellington
Taking charge of COPD: A low-cost self-management intervention
24 months, $249,318

Professor Ralph Maddison, the University of Auckland
Feasibility of a mobile game to improve diabetes self-management in young people
24 months, $249,998

Dr Daniel Ribeiro, University of Otago, Dunedin
The effectiveness of tailored rehabilitation versus standard exercise programme
24 months, $213,067

Professor Richard Siegert, Auckland University of Technology
Mindfulness training for people after stroke: A feasibility study
24 months, $249,858

Dr Daniel Sutton, Auckland University of Technology
Sensory modulation for anxiety in primary health care: A feasibility study
18 months, $164,635

Honorary Associate Professor Natalie Walker, the University of Auckland
Feasibility of a smartphone-based support system for hazardous drinkers
18 months, $187,415