More than 115 people died from opioid overdose each day in the United States in 2018—a grim statistic that highlights the overwhelming public health crisis that has gripped much of the country. One possible way to save lives may come from simple wearables designed to detect overdoses among people addicted to the powerful and potentially deadly opioid painkillers.
Several companies have been investigating how devices similar to wristbands or watches could track certain health measures that may indicate an opioid overdose.
A project by students at Carnegie Mellon could save lives. Called the HopeBand, the wristband senses low blood oxygen levels and sends a text message and sounds an alarm if danger is imminent.
“Imagine having a friend who is always watching for signs of overdose; someone who understands your usage pattern and knows when to contact [someone] for help and make sure you get help,” student Rashmi Kalkunte told IEEE. “That’s what the HopeBand is designed to do.”
The rate of U.S. drug overdose deaths more than tripled between 1999 and 2016, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During that time period, the synthetic opioid painkiller known as fentanyl rose to become the drug responsible for the largest number of overdose deaths. By 2017, fentanyl—or designer drugs mimicking fentanyl—accounted for almost 30,000 deaths among the more than 72,000 estimated drug overdose deaths.
That public health crisis has spurred a number of companies and universities to develop possible technological solutions. Researchers from the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab have begun using machine learning techniques to study patterns in opioid addiction and usage that could change how opioids are prescribed.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also recently selected eight medical devices from among more than 250 applications for its innovation challenge regarding the opioid epidemic. Some of the devices aim to carefully control the dispensing of opioid prescriptions in order to reduce the risk of addiction. Others stimulate the brain with magnetic fields to treat opioid addiction, or offer alternative forms of pain relief through virtual reality therapy.
The team won third place in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Opioid Challenge at the Health 2.0 conference in September and they are planning to send the band to a needle exchange program in Pittsburgh. They hope to sell it for less than $20.
Given the more than 72,000 overdose deaths in America this year, a device like this could definitely keep folks a little safer.