harm reduction, opioid overdose, wearable devices

Wearable Device Being Tested to Prevent Opioid Overdose Deaths Using Harm Reduction


Dramatic advances in life-saving technology often meet decades of delay before word of its availability makes it to behavioral professionals. Device manufacturers typically showcase their new wares in technical or medical rather than behavioral circles. Dissemination channels often flow from hospital or physician to behavioral professional, if at all. This article outlines a new wearable device being tested to prevent opioid overdose deaths using a harm reduction model. Much has been written about the telehealth response to the opioid national emergency, such as how updating telehealth policies can be helpful, including using telephone telehealth for opioid addiction.

While this technology is not ready for purchase, this article is offered by Telehealth.org as yet another example of how healthcare technology evolves and can assist clients and patients being seen by behavioral professionals. It is intended to inform the reader that such devices are being researched and suggest that behavioral professionals consider the possibility of a near future when using such devices would be advisable clinically. Technology-informed graduate program faculty members may also use such information to explain how early career clinicians can best think about technology interventions, lest they be swayed into believing the false promises of ill-conceived or prematurely released apps and associated devices.

Wearable Naloxone Opioid Overdose Device Using a Harm Reduction Model

The opioid overdose wearable device was recently described in a journal article titled, Closed-Loop Wearable Naloxone Injector System, published by Scientific Reports, a division of Nature Portfolio. The device described in the article releases opioid overdose medication when worn by a patient experiencing an opioid overdose. According to the report, researchers from the University of Washington based their study on the following premises:

  1. Opioid overdose leads to death due to respiratory failure, which is characterized by respiratory depression and sedation, resulting in a hypoxemic/hypercarbic state.
  2. Left untreated, this physiologic combination can lead to cardiac arrest, anoxia, and death.
  3. A unique feature of opioid toxicity is that it is readily reversed with naloxone, a competitive antagonist which rapidly restores respiration and decreases sedation.
  4. Accessibility to naloxone as a harm reduction intervention for people at risk for opioid overdose is a focus of public health interventions to combat the rising number of opioid-related deaths.

The researchers developed a wearable to reverse an opioid overdose with naloxone, understanding that the medication must be administered as soon as someone shows signs of an overdose or stops breathing (apnea). Suppose a person is alone during an overdose. In that case, if others in their immediate vicinity do not have an appropriate dose of naloxone or don’t know how it is to be administered, the person taking the overdose has a poor chance of survival. Naloxone attaches to opioid receptors and reverses and blocks the effects of other opioids. 

How the Opioid Overdose Device Works

The researchers reported their early tests of an auto-injector system to be worn on an individual’s abdomen. The operation of the new device is similar to that of an insulin pump. It uses wearable sensors to detect breathing patterns and is programmed to recognize the signs of slowed or stopped breathing and movement. If the sensors detect life-threatening breathing symptoms that signal an overdose, a dose of naloxone is automatically and immediately released. The researchers were funded and tested their device on volunteers in two separate environments to evaluate whether their algorithms for detecting overdose were accurate, whether the device properly administered medication in a timely and effective manner, and other early objectives.

The new wearable for opioid overdose study shows that the harm reduction device acts as it should and delivers the correct dose into a person’s bloodstream. Much more work is needed before the device pioneered in this feasibility study can receive approval from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for release. In this study, the focus is primarily on the design and functionality of the device rather than the clinical situations where using the device is indicated. Future studies will reportedly involve testing the device’s comfort and other dimensions required for FDA approval, a daunting yet essential aspect of preparing a device for market.

This description of this early trial is intended to give the reader an example of the types of research currently underway to treat not only opioid use disorder but many other behavioral issues where traditional medical and behavioral specialties meet. Other Telehealth.org articles related to digital innovation relevant to behavioral health are below.

Ingestible Sensor Tracks Abilify Adherence Using Prescription Digital Therapeutics

New Sleep Therapy Company Primasun Combines Sleep Technology & Sleep Research

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