May 2020 marked a grim, new milestone in the ongoing opiate overdose epidemic. That is when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a one-year period—81,000 casualties. Most of which were attributed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Each individual statistic represents its own story of tragedy and loss, including the family and community. Those once devastated, will never be the same.
Such statistics bear witness to the massive scale of this epidemic. They also point to the urgent need for more effective solutions at preventing overdose.
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Why Develop Smart Technologies That Prevent Opiate Overdose
One encouraging sign of progress in this arena is the development of smart technologies that may prevent overdose and save more lives. We know how to treat opiate overdose and addiction better than ever. After all, so the problem is not so much an inability to treat overdose and addiction. (Explore how opiate treatment is saving lives from addiction and overdose.)
Much more problematic are the obstacles that keep people from quickly and easily accessing treatments like the medication Narcan, which is highly effective at reversing the effects of an overdose. Now, three smart innovations may succeed at overcoming some of these obstacles and are worth knowing about, especially if you or a loved one may be at risk of an overdose.
A Wearable, Automatic Naloxone Delivery Device
The brainchild of researchers at Purdue, it is meant to be minimally invasive and worn at all times, so that if a person overdoses while indisposed and alone, it can automatically detect the overdose and deliver naloxone.
An opiate user may not grasp that an overdose has occurred or have the presence of mind to inject naloxone. If they are alone (as many users are during an overdose), the prospects of receiving emergency assistance before it’s too late are low. The Purdue team’s invention would use electrocardiography (EKG) signals to detect when a person’s respiration has fallen below a certain level, at which point it would release naloxone.
Here is where the mechanics of saving lives become more interesting and potentially challenging. The researchers currently foresee that the naloxone would be pre-injected as a capsule under the skin in an outpatient setting.
Meanwhile, much like an insulin pump, the device could be worn as an armband. It might be strapped on to a magnetic field generator and connected to a portable battery worn at the hip.
A sticker-like EKG sensor on the skin and in an area like the chest would measure respiration rate. If it fell too low, the sensor would activate the magnetic field generator to heat up the drug capsule in the body, releasing naloxone.
The plan is also to build a system into the device that automatically alerts emergency services when an overdose has occurred.
A Smartphone App
Much like the above device, the app “Second Chance” was designed to detect overdose and alert emergency services when an opiate user is unable to call for help. Second Chance is the creation of researchers at the University of Washington. They found a way to turn an ordinary smartphone into “a short-range, active sonar system,” as described on the University of Washington’s website.
The system can recognize the signs of “acute opioid toxicity,” by detecting respiratory depression, apnea and the gross motor movements associated with overdose. How exactly? By using overdose detection algorithms, based on changes in sonar frequencies.
Say, for example, that a person overdoses, and their breathing begins to slow down. Second Chance reportedly sends inaudible sound waves from the phone to their chest and then monitors how those sound waves come back to the phone.
Decreased breathing or an end in respiration immediately sends an alarm to the person asking them to respond. If they do not respond to the app, Second Chance immediately alerts emergency services or a designated friend or family member who has naloxone.
A Smart Nasal Spray Device
“Safe’n’Spray,” as it is called, is the drugmaker Nemera’s solution to the problem of overdose on doctor-prescribed opioid medications. This scenario (accidental overdose on prescription painkillers) is very common in this country. The Drug Policy Alliance has reported that accidental drug overdose is the leading cause of death in this country, with prescription opioids accounting for a majority of these casualties.
Safe’n’Spray is a smart, electronic device, with an interactive, animated, user-interface, as well as a display that lets users know the number of doses left and the remaining time for the next dose. The device monitors drug dose delivery, via a reusable, electronic locking unit and fingerprint identification that help keep the patient safe.
The fingerprint sensor feature makes it impossible for anyone other than the patient to administer the medication. When almost half of all opiate misuse starts with a friend or family member’s prescription, according to a 2016 report by PBS News, this feature alone may go a long way in preventing more overdoses.
What These Tech Developments Might Mean for the Future
No smart device for preventing overdose can give a person the gift of long-term recovery that treatment offers. Still, insofar as each of these new developments in technology could eventually save lives in a worsening epidemic. They are a promising example of how innovative technologies can be harnessed in the fight to end opiate overdose and addiction in this country. By making early support and medical intervention more accessible, they may very well prevent the unnecessary, deadly consequences of use for many more people.
However, further research into the benefits and risks of these assistive devices, (once they are made available for general use), will be key in determining their value as measured in lives saved. Each of these devices will need to be installed, monitored, and subscribed to by people actively using or at risk of using, after all. That means individual responsibility—and a desire and decision to choose health, recovery and a life without drugs and recovery—will remain critical.
This article was provided by Dr. Beau Nelson, DBH, LCSW, who is Chief Clinical Officer at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.