When it comes to stopping the deadly effects of an opiate overdose, time is of the essence. Every moment that the brain is deprived of oxygen increases the risk of permanent damage or death. Overdoses can be reversed by administering a drug called Narcan, but the treatment has to be delivered quickly. A team of clinical specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital is hoping to revolutionize the way we respond to overdoses by putting Narcan in the hands of team of citizen volunteers who are ready to help whenever—and wherever—an overdose happens.
The Opioid Epidemic
There were 1,531 confirmed deaths attributed to opioid overdoses in Massachusetts in 2015, according to statistics recently released by the state. With the opioid epidemic continuing to spiral out of control nationwide, there’s a need to find a solution to curb the staggering number of deaths by overdose.
Help could be on the way thanks to an innovative new concept that emerged from a Fall 2016 hackathon put on by the Center for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) and Global Medicine at Mass General and sponsored by the GE Foundation.
The Allies Concept
The three-day hackathon provided an opportunity for three Mass General specialists—Kristian Olson, MD, the Medical Director of CAMTech and a core educator in the Department of Medicine, Benjamin Bearnot, MD, a primary care physician and Innovation Fellow at MGH Charlestown, and Jessica Moreno, PharmD, a clinical pharmacist at Mass General—to collaborate on a plan for reversing overdoses before they do lasting damage.
Olson, Bearnot and Moreno were part of a nine-person team that also featured an industrial designer, an engineer, an industry pharmacologist, and importantly, people in recovery.
Their plan, titled We Are Allies, calls for equipping everyday citizen volunteers with an easy to administer spray version of anti-overdose drug naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan®.
Overdoses can be deadly because opiates bind to receptors in the brain and spinal cord that are responsible for keeping us breathing. When an overdose occurs, these receptors can slow down or stop working all together, which means the body can essentially “forget” to keep breathing. Naloxone reverses the effects of an overdose by releasing the hold that opiates have on the receptors.
It does not have an adverse affect on someone who is not having an opioid overdose, which makes it safe to administer if an overdose is suspected but not confirmed.
The team believes that getting naloxone into the hands of more people will increase the odds that someone will be nearby to help when an overdose occurs. Naloxone is relatively easy to get and safe to use, but many people—even doctors—don’t carry it with them on a regular basis.
Another key component of the team’s plan is to have the Allies carry their naloxone in a bright purple pouch that can be attached to their handbag or workbag. This distinctive design will let others know that the person is carrying naloxone and is ready to help if needed.
“Not enough people have easy access to this life-saving medication, especially in situations where it is needed most,” says Moreno. “On top of that, those who do need it may be afraid or ashamed to seek it out due to the stigma they face every day. We hope to address both of these issues head-on by encouraging Allies to essentially wear the naloxone on their sleeves in our carrying cases.”
The team hopes the high visibility purple pouches and indicator pins will also raise the public profile of the Allies in the community, which may help to foster new conversations about opioid use disorder and reduce the stigma and sense of isolation that many who suffer from the disorder experience.
“We thought that ‘ally’ was such a great term,” explained Olson. “We rallied around it because it changed the notion of isolation. We wanted to say; ‘We’re all allies in fighting opioid use disorder.’”
For more details on the program including training videos and information on how to sign up as an ally, please visit http://www.becomeanally.com/.