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An App Designed to Curb Drug Overdose Deaths Has Saved 15 Lives

One advocate says the $900,000 cost to build it would be better spent on safe supply.

Moira Wyton 18 Mar

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

At least 15 additional lives have been saved from toxic drug deaths in B.C. over the last 10 months thanks to a “virtual buddy” the province rolled out last May for people using substances.

Paramedics and firefighters have, so far, responded to 62 calls for help through the Lifeguard app, which automatically calls an ambulance for people using substances if they become unresponsive to digital prompts.

Responders have reversed 16 overdoses across all health authorities. The 46 other calls were either accidental, or the person came to before emergency services arrived.

Everyone who used the app to call for help survived, said Neil Lilley, a senior provincial executive director at BC Emergency Health Services.

The numbers, while small compared to the at least 1,499 people who have died of toxic drug deaths over the same period, represent a significant success in the effort to curb overdoses.

“Even if it was just one life saved, one life is one life, and everybody deserves a chance of survival,” said Lilley, who headed up the integration of the app with B.C.’s emergency dispatch system. 

Earlier this week, the Surrey Now-Leader reported one man had been saved twice from an overdose while using Lifeguard and is now in treatment for fentanyl dependence.

“This app has fortunately given 15 people back to their friends and family, and they now live another day,” said Lilley. “For me, that is just remarkable.”

The Lifeguard app employs a one-minute timer the user has to either pause or deactivate to signal they are OK. If they don’t respond in time, the app places a call to 911 for help using personal information input into the user’s profile.

About 89 per cent of people who died in 2019 of a toxic drug overdose were alone, Lilley said. The aim of the app is to be a resource for them.

Advocate Laura Shaver says Lifeguard is clearly working for people who use substances recreationally and others who might not want to disclose their drug use.

“If it saves even one life, I’m all for it,” said Shaver, who is treasurer of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and a peer advisor at the BC Centre on Substance Use. “It’s good for those people that maybe don’t use all the time, because then they don’t have to let other people know.”

But Shaver, who often works with people who use substances in the Downtown Eastside, says the app isn’t accessible to many who don’t have cell phones or who don’t trust that police won’t be called.

Vancouver has seen the most people die of any city in B.C. Since May, at least 360 people have died in city limits, and a majority of overdose emergency calls originate in the Downtown Eastside, according to the City of Vancouver.

Shaver would have rather seen the $900,000 the province spent on the app go towards manufacturing or procuring pharmaceutical-grade heroin, a safe supply option currently available to only a few hundred people in B.C. due to what the province describes as a prohibitively high cost.

“It would save many, many more lives if they would cover that,” said Shaver, noting it would also be cheaper overall, because prescription heroin reduces the risk of overdose and costly hospitalization or incarceration for petty crimes committed to pay for substances.

Lifeguard is the latest tool to prevent overdoses by addressing the use of drugs by people alone and in isolation during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has also made people more hesitant to seek harm reduction services like drug testing and supervised consumption sites, which have had to reduce capacity to keep up with physical distancing measures.

And with fentanyl concentrations and the presence of benzodiazepines skyrocketing in the illicit street supply, people who use substances casually or infrequently have never been at a higher risk of overdose.

Lilley says the app has been well-received, but he still hears concerns about user privacy. Information about users’ locations and the substances they consume is confidential and never shared with law enforcement, he said, and police also do not respond to any calls.

There are currently more than 4,700 unique users who have used the app a combined total of nearly 34,000 times in 10 months. That works out to someone using the app about once every 13 minutes.

The app’s users represent 5.7 per cent of the estimated 83,000 people who are opioid dependent in B.C., but this does not include casual users or people who primarily use other substances.

“We know it works, we know it saves lives,” said Lilley. “The challenge is to get the word out there.”

The province spent $900,000 to develop the app and move up its launch as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted harm reduction services and the drug supply, causing a surge in overdose deaths that made 2020 the deadliest year on record in B.C.

Lilley would like to see everyone, whether they use drugs or not, download the app, which also shares resources on substance use, recognizing an overdose and seeking treatment for those who want it.

“The more people who download this app, that breaks the barrier and stigma associated with the application,” he said. “Then we can build it up and support it together.”

The app is a good thing, said VANDU’s Shaver. “I just don’t think it’s realistic for the demographic I work with. We need choices because we are able to make our own decisions.”  [Tyee]

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