Face facts

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Is online coaching really as good as face-to-face service? Let’s find out, says Angela Calcan.

Angela Calcan is operations manager at Humankind
Angela Calcan is operations manager at Humankind

Online solutions have revolutionised our lives and mostly for the better – especially so during a time where we are forced to stay at home. Digital solutions have become the new way of life. Forget a stressful trip to the shops, now you can do your grocery shop from your couch. Want to change insurer? Compare the whole of the market with the swipe of your finger. Fast and convenient and generally pretty safe, online solutions are becoming our ‘go-to’. But does the online magic translate to a coaching service too? We say yes, and here’s why.

If you’ve got a Fitbit or if you’ve downloaded Mindspace or something similar then you’ve already bought into the idea that tech solutions can support behaviour change. Not only are they popular, but online interventions – including apps, online courses and even counselling – have actually proved effective for treating addiction and alcohol use for some time now.

IpadNow that all sounds very promising, but there is very limited research for online interventions using video conferencing. So we asked ourselves, could we replicate the human element of face-to-face (F2F) coaching and get similar results if we used a platform like Zoom? To help answer this question we worked with Professor Daniel Frings and his team from London Southbank University. In this study Frings compared Extended Brief Interventions (EBI) delivered online via our DrinkCoach service to F2F in a GP surgery.

EBI is the recommended treatment for people scoring 16 to 19 or higher risk on the alcohol use disorders test (AUDIT). Approximately 1.9m people in the UK drink at higher risk levels. If you’ve completed the DrinkCoach alcohol test you’ll be familiar with your risk level. If you haven’t, you can take it at drinkcoach.org.uk.

EBI is typically:

  • A series of 4-6 sessions
  • Delivered by a specialist
  • Designed to motivate the client to achieve their goal to reduce their alcohol consumption or stop.

For the research Professor Frings compared EBI-delivered F2F in a GP surgery to EBI delivered at home or work via a Skype call. The results were very encouraging.

Both online and face-to-face EBI showed improvements for clients across a number of key measures. These included:

  • Reduction in drinking days
  • Improved psychological wellbeing
  • Improved physical health
  • Improved quality of life rating

The research also found that the demographic makeup of our online clients differed from the F2F group. Online clients tended to be younger, scored higher on the AUDIT and reported more days in work but, when baseline drinking and age were controlled for, the findings still showed online EBI led to equal or greater increases in quality of life and reductions in self-reported drinking days.

So what does this mean for online coaching and future research?

Put simply, the research tells us that the outlook for online coaching is good. It also told us that there’s more to do from a research perspective.

Future research would benefit from a larger sample – it could include a control group, which this small research project didn’t have. And while this work was based on historic data, future research could be more forward-focused, specifying data needs upfront and allowing for more thorough analysis.

The results also suggest online coaching might be particularly attractive to a younger cohort with higher drinking scores, the implications of which could be explored further. It’s all about options. Regardless of your age and score, if you want to talk to someone about your drinking and you’re not comfortable approaching a face-to-face service think about going online. Our evidence suggests it’s on a par with F2F, and there’s no better place than your own home, is there?

For more information on our coaching service visit: drinkcoach.org.uk