App Links Overdosing People to Nearby Volunteers With Naloxone

Randy Dotinga

July 03, 2020

Naloxone can reverse opioid overdoses, but time is crucial and its effectiveness wanes if medics can't arrive right away. Now, a new app links overdose victims or their companions to trained volunteers nearby who may be able to administer the drug much faster.

Over a 1-year period, about half of 112 participants in a Philadelphia trial said they'd responded to overdoses via the app, and about half used it to report overdoses, according to a study released at the virtual annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence.

"Thanks to the app, there may have been a life saved about twice a month that otherwise wouldn't have been," said public health researcher and study coauthor Stephen Lankenau, PhD, of Drexel University, Philadelphia, in an interview.

Philadelphia has the largest opioid overdose rate of any large city, Dr. Lankenau said, and people who overdose are often reluctant to call 911. "Police are often alerted when it's determined that it's a drug-related call. They're concerned that police could show up and someone will get arrested."

However, the app, called UnityPhilly, doesn't remove professional medics from the picture. It's designed to be a supplement to the existing first-response system – "it's not meant to replace 911" – and allow a faster response to overdoses when minutes matter, Dr. Lankenau said.

"If someone is adamantly opposed to calling 911," he said, "this may not be the best intervention for them."

Here's how the app works: Participants who overdose themselves or witness an overdose can send out an alert to nearby app users. When an alert goes out, the app also attempts to dial 911, although the participant can bypass this.

Nearby responders can reply by pressing "En route" and then go to the address of the overdose with a provided supply of naloxone (Narcan). The amateur responders, many of whom are or were opioid users themselves, are trained in how to administer the drug.

The study authors recruited 112 participants from the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington and tracked them from 2019 to 2020. About half (n = 57) reported using opioids within the past 30 days, and those participants had an average age of 42 years, were 54% men, and were 74% non-Hispanic white. Only 19% were employed, and 42% had been recently homeless. Nearly 80% had overdosed before, and all had witnessed overdoses.

The other participants (n = 55), defined as "community members," had less experience with opioids (44% had misused them before), although 91% had witnessed overdoses. Their average age was 42 years, 56% were women, 53% were employed, and 16% had been recently homeless.

Over a 1-year period, 51% of the opioid-using participants used the app to report an overdose, as did 46% of the community members. The percentages who reported being en route to an overdose was 47% (opioid users) and 46% (community members).

"The idea of people being trained as community responders has been around for quite a while, and there are hundreds of programs across the country. People are willing to carry naloxone and respond if they see an overdose in front of them," Dr. Lankenau said. "Here, you have people becoming civilian responders to events they wouldn't otherwise know about. This creates a community of individuals who can help out immediately and augment the work that emergency responders do."

Opioid users who download the app may be drawn to the idea of responders who are nonjudgmental and supportive, compared with professional medics. "The system has not done well by people with substance abuse disorders," said addiction medicine specialist Sukhpreet Klaire, MD, of the British Columbia Center on Substance Use in Vancouver. "In terms of overdose reversal, you may prefer that someone else [other than a medic] give you Narcan and support you through this experience. When it's over after you're reversed, you have a sudden onset of withdrawal symptoms. You feel terrible, and you don't want to be sitting in an ambulance. You want to be in a supportive environment."

As for adverse effects, there was concern that opioid users might take more risks with an app safety net in place. However, no one reported more risky behavior in interviews, Dr. Lankenau said.

The 3-year program costs $215,000, he said, and the next step is to get funding for a Philadelphia citywide trial.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Dr. Lankenau reported no relevant disclosures. Dr. Klaire disclosed participating in a research fellowship and a research in addiction medical scholars program, both funded by NIDA.

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