The group was founded by Dr Jon Ward, who had previously established an educational psychology business (CPA). By 2009-2010, he saw the potential to create a new form of consultancy, which would use technology as a route to care, so he set up Breaking Free.
His aim was to address the underlying psychological and lifestyle influences which drive addictive behaviour, by developing a powerful and flexible digital health platform.
Previously, if someone wanted to tackle their addictions, they had three options: try by themselves, check in to a private clinic, which was very expensive, or join one of various organisations, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. However, but those models haven’t really changed in years.
Jon’s innovation was not simply to see how programmes for alcohol and drug dependency could be delivered remotely by digital technology, but to realise that interventions had to be evidence-based. Everything Breaking Free does is underpinned by data and research, and we have now had 14 papers published on our work. Several of these have been by academics at King’s College London, and we’ve just done one with Harvard.
All these papers were written by people who have no connection with Breaking Free, they were all peer-reviewed and have passed the quality threshold. Such input and analysis also helps us test, fine-tune and enhance our programmes. Breaking Free Online is a treatment and recovery programme which has been commissioned by more than 60 local authorities and NHS Trusts, and adopted by several national charities which provide treatments for substance abuse.
We’re working with Turning Point, for example, and also with CRI, which is a £100m organisation tackling severe cases of alcohol and drug abuse. In the past, many of these people would be turned away by charities or casework teams because of the severity of their condition and their behavioural issues.
Providing a remote online service works better for individuals who are attempting self-help, and we have also developed Staying Free, a toolkit designed to prevent relapses, available as an app on Android or IOS platforms.
Then the Ministry of Justice approached us because it wanted to address the issue of drug addiction within prisons. We were asked if we could use our methodology to create new pathways of care, and so we did a two-year study at ten prisons, which was the world’s first online health monitoring initiative for offenders.
NHS England commissioned the programme through its ‘Gateways’ project, which looks to provide better continuity of care between prisons and communities, and is a major element of the Government’s efforts to reduce reoffending rates. Our staff were installed in each prison, working alongside the educational interventions to monitor the success of our programmes. All the feedback has been positive, and we’d certainly hope to be commissioned for further studies.
Now we’re seeing significant interest in our work throughout the UK and overseas. Our products are in a specialised market niche, as we grow we may ultimately enter different markets, but there’s a long way we can go with our existing products.
We see ourselves as an innovative element within the wider digital healthcare economy, but we are certainly not claiming to offer miracle cures. However, our programmes are now proven to work for people who wish to tackle their addictions, and wish to do so via digital platforms.
Looking ahead, we’d be disappointed if we weren’t operating in at least one overseas geography, but there are lots of ‘What Ifs’ ahead, and we’re only a small business at the moment.