Tech offers help to fight opioid addiction

September 05, 2018 10:00
Increased prescriptions for opioid pain relievers have led to rising addiction levels. Photo: Bloomberg

Surrounded by mountains and the sea, Vancouver can appear to be the perfect city. It’s shocking to find this image shattered by a drive along the city’s East Hastings Street – where hundreds of people are on the street, many smoking crack pipes or shooting up openly.

The problem is one that North America faces in many cities – an opioid crisis getting out of control. In the 1990s, increased prescriptions for opioid pain relievers led to rising addiction levels – if your doctor gave it to you it must be OK, right? Pain-relieving drugs including legal prescriptions, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl contributed to a hidden epidemic that now has a growing public face.

Statistics from the US National Institute on Drug Abuse show that more than 115 people in the United States die every day after overdosing on opioids. In 2015, more than 33,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose, 2 million were addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, and 591,000 had a heroin addiction. The cost to the US economy including healthcare, treatment, and crime is estimated at US$78.5 billion per year.

The ubiquity of abuse has led some to consider the role of tech in helping solve the crisis, particularly in improving the rehab experience. Wired writer Zachary Siegel found his rehab for opioid use degrading and without an iota of help – which led him to “mHeath”, a method of treatment delivered by a smartphone. Never heard of it? It was estimated by some researchers to be worth US$23 billion in 2017.

Siegel called the current state of addiction treatment a “mostly unregulated for-profit industry that continues to preach abstinence and character-building as the answer to addiction”. This lack of efficacy in treating addiction has driven the proliferation of apps created by clinical researchers and developers that are operating with medical oversight. Pear Therapeutics’s app reSET was the first of its kind to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Both Apple and Play Stores are packed with thousands of treatment apps with many of them focused not on abstinence, but managing addition, from narcotics to alcohol. For anyone who has gone out clubbing or to a bar, having to survive on non-alcoholic drinks or booze-free beer, the experience can be frustrating and boring. Why go cold turkey?

Apps like Ria Health are, in the words of the developer, “intended for alcoholics or anyone who would rather drink less, from people who tend to have a few too many at parties to people who drink a bottle of liquor every day. The idea is to change problematic drinking habits before they get out of hand.”

For those who wish to stay sober, apps are focused on maintaining a substance-free lifestyle or meeting like-minded people in a sober social network. While many a party animal would scoff at the idea, a walk down Vancouver’s East Hastings Street is a sobering reminder that substance addiction can happen to anyone, and with treatment often alienating and unregulated, tech is the perfect way to reach out.

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EJI contributor