VANCOUVER — A Vancouver technology co-operative is gaining recognition for developing a mobile app and three other digital monitoring tools aimed at preventing overdoses, especially among drug users who are dying alone.
Brave Technology is the only Canadian participant among 12 companies awarded $200,000 in the Ohio Opioid Technology Challenge, and they are all now vying for a $1-million grant to come up with technical solutions to address the overdose crisis.
Oona Krieg, chief operating officer for Brave, said people would log on to the Be Safe app before using their drugs to connect with trained volunteer responders ready to step in with the overdose-reversing medication naloxone or call an ambulance.
"You're connected to a community responder who will stay on the phone with you," she said, adding a user would be asked a series of questions, including which drug they believe they'll be using.
The next phase of testing the app, which has been in development for a year, is expected to begin in Vancouver next month.
Krieg said Be Safe, like the other tools under development, is intended to act as a form of digital supervision for people who use drugs alone and would never go to supervised consumption sites.
"The idea is to end the isolation and to be able to respond to an overdose quicker than somebody else calling 911," she said, adding the app would also enable people to make connections with responders and get information on clean needles, wound care, or a referral to treatment if the user is ready to take that step.
Another app being developed would allow members of the community to register to be trained as responders.
Krieg said families of people who have died, those who have survived an overdose, and citizens looking for ways to get involved in dealing with the opioid crisis are stepping up to take action.
"One of the first things that can end the isolation is community-member response," she said.
The BC Coroners Service said 88 per cent of the 878 overdose deaths between January and July occurred indoors, among people who used alone or were with someone who was unwilling or unable to call 911.
Brave is also developing an internet-enabled "button" that would be installed in rooms of supported housing complexes, for example, so drug users can press it to connect with trained staff in the building, Krieg said.
"The whole premise is you press the button when you're about to use and within three to five minutes someone comes and checks on you."
An 11-day pilot project involved mounting the buttons in 17 rooms of a supported housing complex in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, Krieg said.
"The results were that people were pressing the buttons when using, and three overdoses were reversed. For the other 68 per cent of people who'd used the button, there was no need for a reversal but people were checked on."
Three more pilots in Vancouver are slated to begin in November, she said.
A prototype for a fourth tool, called an Odetect, is about a year from development and could be a wearable device such as a nose ring that may measure respiration and oxygen levels and transmit that information to responders who could take action, Krieg said.
Hugh Lampkin, vice-president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said any technology designed to prevent overdoses would be an asset for people who are hiding their addiction.
"There's so much shame associated with using drugs that they use alone because they don't want their boss, their spouse, their family or their neighbours to know what they're doing," he said.
Dr. Keith Ahamad, an addictions specialist at St. Paul's Hospital, said there's an urgent need for technology-driven intervention where a "gaping hole" currently exists.
"One thing we've had a really hard time doing is figuring out how to get to people who are using alone. It's very complicated, including things like stigma and being in recovery," said Ahamad, who is also a clinical researcher at the BC Centre for Substance Use and spent seven years working as a computer engineer.
"We've got overdose prevention sites and take-home naloxone but for people who are dying alone we need something innovative."
Ahamad said biomedical engineering faculties at universities across North America are showing interest in developing technology to respond to an alarming number of overdose deaths and there's a need for groups like Brave to partner with them to evaluate digital tools that could be "mind blowing."
"People who are hiding away in their rooms by themselves could put a device on that could potentially be linked via Bluetooth to your cellphone that could phone 911, text a friend, use GPS."
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Camille Bains, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled Oona in para 3.