It's 'confidential.' Alberta won't say if overdose response app is saving lives

A screen capture of an Alberta government ad promoting the Digital Overdose Response System. The app is a way for Albertans using drugs to get emergency help if they become unconscious.   (Government of Alberta - image credit)
A screen capture of an Alberta government ad promoting the Digital Overdose Response System. The app is a way for Albertans using drugs to get emergency help if they become unconscious. (Government of Alberta - image credit)

Nearly two years after the launch of an overdose prevention app, the Alberta government refuses to say whether the Digital Overdose Response System (DORS) is saving lives.

A spokesperson for the minister of mental health and addiction would only say the app has been downloaded 3,700 times and has nearly 1,100 registered users.

But has it saved lives?

The government won't say.

"DORS is a confidential and anonymous service," Colin Aitchison wrote in an email to CBC News.

"Our goal is to save lives while still protecting the privacy of Albertans. In an effort to ensure people feel safe using the app, we will not be releasing any additional information on the EMS responses or any data that could potentially identify a specific person," he said.

Shortly after its launch, the app came under fire from a Calgary-based app developer, harm reduction advocates and a group of mothers who have lost children to overdoses.

Petra Schulz, whose son died of an overdose in 2014 and has since become a harm-reduction advocate, refuses to recommend the app to people who use drugs.

She's concerned people who use the app could have their drug use added to their personal health profile or face criminal charges. Schulz says her other concern is the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the app's efficacy.

"I think a lot of people would have concerns about having a record of their substance use on their health file," she said.

"Frankly, the other concern I have since the app was launched is that we don't have data on it," Schulz said.

Google Meet
Google Meet

The government spokesperson says DORS is confidential and anonymous and personal health information is not collected.

"The app was designed to save lives while still protecting a person's privacy," Aitchison said.

Alberta's DORS app requires the person using drugs to anonymously enter their phone number and location. They'll start a timer, which automatically alerts emergency responders if they become unresponsive after the timer ends and an alarm is sounded. An attempt to connect with the user would be made to determine whether emergency medical services need to be dispatched.

Government of Alberta
Government of Alberta

Schulz is concerned about the time it would take for emergency medical services to respond given the current strain on paramedics across the province.

She also questions why the government invested money and developed the app when similar services, such as NORS, the National Overdose Response Service, and Brave already exist.

B.C.'s Lifeguard app displays the number of lives saved on its website, which stated 56 as of last week.

The government provides $186,000 per year to Calgary-based Aware360 to "support" the app, according to Aitchison.

Virtual safe injection site

Dr. Monty Ghosh, one of the co-founders of NORS, has compared the service to a virtual safe injection site for people who are alone and using substances. It's a national, toll-free line that connects the user with a peer who has  lived experience with drug use. They develop an emergency response plan in the event of an overdose, drug poisoning or mental health crisis.

Ghosh, who is an Alberta-based addictions physician, says NORS has been "hugely successful," with 66 overdose responses and zero deaths through the first two years of use.

While he won't comment on the Alberta government's decision not to release detailed information about DORS, he says the national group is trying to be as forthcoming as possible about the efficacy of NORS.

"It all comes down to developing and building evidence to show or to understand the efficacy of a program," he said.

"So that not only clinicians can be confident with it, but most importantly, people who use the service can be confident with the service, that it does work, it is effective and that there is a model that is successful."

Dr. S. Monty Ghosh
Dr. S. Monty Ghosh

Ghosh says the virtual overdose response services are not meant to replace supervised consumption sites, which he describes as the gold standard for people who use drugs, in part because of the immediate response time in the event of a drug poisoning.

Ghosh is hoping to increase awareness of virtual overdose services that are available for people who may not be able to access a supervised consumption site.

"We know that, depending where you are in the province, 50-70 per cent of people who are dying from drug poisonings are dying in their own private homes, and so these services are really there to address that gap," he said.

He agrees the biggest barriers for people accessing the service are privacy and confidentiality — and fear of arrest.

Ghosh believes there is room for both NORS and DORS as each service offers a different approach for people who are using drugs.

Ghosh is trying to learn more about people who have used virtual overdose prevention services and even those who haven't. He's launched an anonymous survey for anyone to submit their thoughts or experiences on the services.

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.