Providing a treatment research portal for practitioners

Mike Ashton | September 2021 | 9 minutes

Drug and Alcohol Findings’ Alcohol Treatment Matrix is a key resource for treatment practitioners, helping them to identify and explore the evidence behind how well certain interventions work.

As a multiagency trainer in substance misuse I must have trained thousands of professionals in Suffolk, from GPs to police officers to teachers and social workers; and your work has underpinned it all. They may not realise it, but your work has had a big impact on those who work with drug and alcohol users.

Renato Masetti, Training Co-ordinator, Health Outreach, North Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, England; 20 April 2021

The matrices: origins and aims

In 2019, Alcohol Change UK funded an update to the Alcohol Treatment Matrix for further findings and implications on some of the latest research. The Alcohol Treatment Matrix update was the culmination of a journey that began in 1998 with a prospectus for a new project called Drug and Alcohol Findings. It argued that while substance use interventions and research evaluating how well those interventions worked were reasonably well resourced, “there is a problem: precisely because it is the core business of neither side to link up with the other, these two significant categories of funding are divided by a constricted communications bottleneck which perversely minimises the impact of research findings on practice, and of practical needs on the research agenda."

Drug and Alcohol Findings was created to bridge that gap, primarily by analysing relevant evaluation findings and proactively communicating those analyses to UK practitioners in substance use prevention, treatment and enforcement. The aim was not just to convey the findings, but to place them in context and explore their practice implications in a UK context.

At first disseminated as a magazine (see this short history), the results came to be disseminated online via the Effectiveness Bank database and website. On the foundation of analyses of individual studies, in 2013 were built the twin superstructures known as the alcohol and drug treatment matrices. Treatment was chosen because it absorbs the lion’s share of intervention funding and of international evaluation research efforts, and was of greatest interest to most of our subscribers. After 15 years analysing the world evaluation research literature, we felt well placed to identify seminal and key studies and to explain these to practitioners. The matrices did this separately for the treatment of problem use of illegal drugs and for problem drinking.

Alcohol Treatment Matrix

Lists of key documents are not unusual. The innovation for the matrices was first to map and segment the universe of treatment research, and within each segment to identify key documents, accepting that for some segments research may be lacking or inadequate. Each matrix consists of a 5x5 table totalling 25 cells, segmenting treatment in to the major practical divisions relevant to its effectiveness and delivery. Across the columns ABCDE, the 'Intervention level' dimension moves from specific interventions through how their impacts are affected by the widening contexts of the practitioners who deliver them, their managers, the organisations they work in/for, and the treatment systems of which the organisations form a part. Down the rows, the “Intervention type” dimension segments into the major types of interventions implemented at these levels (see illustration). Clicking on a cell opens it to show the main historical and contemporary research landmarks relevant to the cell’s remit, reviews offering a panoramic view, expert guidance based on research, an option to explore beyond these selected documents, and a commentary on the listed documents.

The new project

Before the update funded by Alcohol Change UK, the Alcohol Treatment Matrix had last been updated between June 2016 and July 2017, meaning that by the time its turn came for updating each cell had to be reconsidered in the light of three years or more of newly published or discovered studies, reviews, and guidance. Even if there had been no documents to add (and there always were), the plan was to reconsider and revise the text and make technical improvements and design changes. The aim was to not just to bring the Alcohol Treatment Matrix up-to-date, but also in the process to improve its analyses of documents and issues and its presentation. The results were to be released fortnightly, forming an online course on alcohol treatment research.

The response to the project suggests that practitioners remain interested in receiving updates on alcohol treatment research to help improve understanding of the research and its implications for practice.