Alberta Health unveils new mobile application to curb overdose deaths

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Calgary was chosen as the test city because of its significant overdose deaths, including 441 in 2020

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The UCP government is piloting a new virtual program in Calgary aimed at preventing overdose deaths, months after halting a similar project on the eve of its province-wide launch.

The new Digital Overdose Response System (DORS) is a mobile application, which will alert emergency responders if an individual becomes unresponsive to a pre-set timer — similar to B.C.’s Lifeguard app.

Testing will begin this summer in Calgary, but the program is unlikely to expand to other communities until 2022.

Calgary was chosen as the test city because of its significant overdose deaths, including 441 in 2020.

A staggering 1,281 overdose fatalities took place in Alberta last year, according to updated provincial data. About 88 per cent are linked to opioids, such as fentanyl.

Nine months ago, Jason Luan, associate minister of mental health and addictions, quashed a phone-based supervised consumption project less than 24 hours before call lines opened.

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Unlike DORS, that service would have connected users to peer operators, tasked with monitoring clients after substance use and dispatching emergency medical services if they became unresponsive.

When pressed about why the government switched course and how the Alberta programs differed, Luan offered no clear explanation.

“There’s no one single solution,” he said.

“The intention is how can we create a virtual way to reach out to those who use drugs alone at home and bring them into the system so we can help them in their recovery journey.”

A national hotline — called the National Overdose Response Service (NORS) — has since launched and operates much like the Alberta line would have.

With DORS, users will be prompted to allow the app to access location services.

They can then initiate a two-minute timer. When an alarm goes off, individuals can respond by extending the session or ending the session. If there is no response, it will trigger a call from STARS Air Ambulance, which will dispatch EMS if needed.

Its focus is on people using substances alone.

The province estimates 70 per cent of overdose deaths occurred in a private residence last year.

From 2018 to 2020, upwards of 80 per cent of opioid-related fatalities in Calgary and Edmonton occurred in suburban neighbourhoods outside the downtown core.

There is no specified timeline for the testing phase of DORS.

Alberta-based addictions specialist Dr. Monty Ghosh, who was involved with both the NORS and DORS project, said a key feature of the provincial application is anonymity.

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Ghosh said there is a lot of stigma associated with substance use, which can negatively affect people’s personal and professional lives. There is also fear of criminalization.

Another benefit is the app connects users to a full spectrum of local support services from harm reduction to recovery.

“Anything we have that is contributing to preventing overdoses is positive,” said Elaine Hyshka, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health. “But what’s frustrating is it’s going to take so long to roll this out.”

She said the government isn’t addressing the overdose crisis with urgency.

In addition to the app, Hyshka said the UCP should be scaling up existing services that are proven to prevent death, such as in-person supervised consumption sites and injectable opioid agonist therapy.

She also questioned why the Alberta government “started from scratch” rather than adopting the Lifeguard app, for example, or moving forward with the previous phone-based project.

“We’re at a point where we’re running out of solutions and the death count is increasing,” said Hyshka.

Lori Sigurdson, NDP critic for mental health and addictions, slammed the province for inaction.

“Let’s be clear on this, (Luan), with no medical training, politically interfered in a clinical program that would have saved lives,” said Sigurdson, referencing the phone-based service.

“I’m devastated by how many Albertans have died over the last nine months while the UCP government withheld medical help for them.”

The NDP are calling on the province to start DORS immediately and expand in-person harm reduction services across the province.

[email protected]

Twitter: alanna_smithh

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