Opioid abuse tackled by technology

Opioid abuse tackled by technology

Technological solutions to the opioid epidemic was the subject of a Jewish Healthcare Foundation program earlier this month, introducing three high-tech concepts in battling abuse and overdose.

A phone app to help locate treatment, an interactive Web program to manage chronic pain, and a device that allows just one pill at a time to be distributed to those on prescription opioids, were presented to a Pittsburgh audience of stakeholders on Dec. 8 by industry insiders.

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, with opioid abuse fueling the epidemic. In 2014, more than 14,000 people in the United States died from overdosing on prescription opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With the problem spiraling out of control, and not enough resources to help those suffering from addiction, it may be time to think out of the box, said Robert Ferguson, JHF’s director of government grants and policy.

“About 80 Americans die from an opioid overdose each day, and Pennsylvanians are experiencing the third highest number of opioid-related deaths in the U.S., particularly in southwestern Pennsylvania,” he wrote in an email. “As a community convener and organizer of Health 2.0 Pittsburgh events, we partnered with Dr. Jan Pringle to focus the event on how technology can help families, providers and other stakeholders respond to the epidemic.”

There are not enough community resources to deal with “the public health crisis related to opioid abuse and overdose,” explained Pringle, director of the program evaluation and resource unit at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy. Drug abusers who want treatment often cannot obtain that treatment, Pringle said, stressing the imperative of developing more ways to help more sufferers.

The JHF program, which was by invitation only, was at capacity, Pringle said, and attendees included policymakers, researchers, family members of drug abusers, people in recovery and potential investors in the new technology presented.

One of those new innovations was introduced by Pittsburgh-based Jarus Health Technologies, which is developing an app to connect people to substance abuse treatment. So far, the company has created a functional prototype to provide users who overdose with an immediate way to connect with someone who can provide naloxone.

Here’s how it works: An opioid user downloads the app and registers, as do friends, family members and volunteer community-based first responders, according to Venkat Narayanan, CEO of Jarus Health. The family members, friends and volunteers agree to carry naloxone. If a user is overdosing and goes to his app, the first thing he will see is a screen that reads “Help.” Touching that screen will trigger a GPS search for a family member or friend within a seven- to 10-minute radius of the user. If one is found, that family member or friend will get a message, and can then accept the responsibility to help. The app will open a map to show the helper where the user is.

If no friend or family member is within a seven- to 10-minute radius, the app will contact volunteer first responders. If none are available, the app dials 911 for help.

Also presenting at the event was Denver-based myStrength, a behavioral health technology company that creates interactive web and mobile applications designed to scale mental health resources by delivering online evidence-based self-help tools.

One of the company’s foci is to “treat individuals with chronic pain and opioid addictions,” said Matt Sopcich, president of myStrength. The company offers tools and resources to help people avoid addiction by offering alternatives to opioids in the treatment of chronic pain, Sopcich said. Those tools include cognitive therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy, and aid people in understanding the cycles of pain and managing activity levels. Through the use of video testimonials, connecting sufferers to other sufferers to share their stories, and featured activities, myStrength aims to help those in pain live active lives without the use of opioids.

MyStrength partners with health care providers, Sopcich said. While the company currently does not have a presence in Pittsburgh it is in active discussions with several potential providers.

“I’m really excited the tech community is getting involved with the recovery community to come up with solutions,” said Charlene Tissenbaum of Mt. Lebanon, a community advocate who was present at the event. “I think it’s a really good beginning.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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