Lifeguard app a new tool to prevent opioid-related deaths
Reeti Meenakshi Rohilla - Staff Writer
Northwestern Ontario has recently been introduced to Lifeguard Digital Health’s overdose prevention Lifeguard App aiming to assist individuals struggling with substance abuse by offering free access to vital drug-related emergency services, and mental health and wellness information.
NorWest Community Health Centres’ Director of Organizational Health, Gustavo Petterle shared, “The Lifeguard App provides people with a direct link to emergency responders if an overdose occurs, as well as access to valuable information including CPR instructions, a Naloxone guide, quick access to suicide and crisis lines, alerts regarding local drug supply contaminants, and other harm reduction tools and information about local services. This is helpful for people who may be too afraid to reach out for help because of negative experiences in the past. The app is particularly helpful if you are alone and become unconscious or unable to function in the event of an overdose as, in which case it automatically triggers emergency response.”
Manager of the Mental Health and Addictions Program (MHAP) at Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre (SLMHC), Michelle Turner shared, “The ongoing opioid crisis in Ontario and our region is a critical concern. Our Mental Health and Addictions Program continues to provide addictions counselling and assistance with treatment options. We embrace innovative tools and solutions such as the Lifeguard app, to assist those in crisis however possible.”
Northwestern Health Unit’s (NWHU) Manager of Sexual Health and Harm Reduction, Gillian Lunny said that opioid related deaths have been a continuing and growing concern within northwestern Ontario. She said, “Opioid overdose deaths have been a public health concern for a number of years and we see those number have steadily been increasing. We know that with COVID, especially when the state of emergency was declared in March of 2020, we saw a significant spike in overdosed deaths within Ontario, within the Northwestern Health Unit catchment area as well.” Lunny added, “So, this is something that has always been a concern. But, definitely COVID has really increased that, in particular because a lot of organizations haven’t been able to do their work, as they normally would have. A lot of our clients have really been isolated and unfortunately a result of that has been overdosed deaths.”
Lunny said that while using alone could severely increase the chances of overdosed deaths, she said beneficial feature of the Lifeguard app provide direct access to crisis lines, along with information that individuals could access from the comfort of their home regarding the availability of mental health and addiction services in their area. She said, “We know that anything to do with mental health and addictions can be very hard for people to acknowledge that they have a problem, and even harder sometimes to reach out to get help.”
Petterle shared that the creation of this app is part of a comprehensive response to the overdose crisis that compliments the existing harm reduction resources that may be available locally. He added that the app requires a smartphone and mobile phone number, along with an Internet connection or data plan.
“The app provides people a whole suite of tools that can support them understanding how to use naloxone, knowing where to call for help or support, and will provide people a direct link to first responders in the result of an overdose. We encourage everyone in our community to get the Lifeguard app to learn more about it, and to have their own personal first aid support in their pocket,” shared Petterle.
A news release about the Lifeguard App explains that a user is required to set a one-minute timer, which can be extended up to five minutes before taking their dose. If the user fails to hit the stop button, the alarm will grow louder until a text-to-voice call goes to emergency medical dispatchers, alerting them of a potential overdose. The media release adds that this critical connection to Emergency Medical Services can prove to be the difference between life and death. The app also connects users with residential recovery and treatment programs.
Lunny said, “We know that a lot of times our clients will reach out to a friend on the phone, just so that there is someone in case things go wrong. So, this app is something that can take the place of that somewhat, that you can have someone on the other end of a phone who can help make sure you are okay after you use.” She said that while this app may not work for everybody, it is a natural fit for many people that use opioids, and is appreciative for the NorWest Community to have included all of northwestern Ontario on this initiative.
The introduction of this app in northwestern Ontario has been made possible in partnership with Lifeguard Digital Health, NorWest Community Health Centres, The District of Thunder Bay Social Services Administration Board, and Emergency Medical Services, with a one-time funding provided by Ontario’s Ministry of Health through the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, shared the media release.
In situations where every second counts, this app provides innovative solutions by serving as another tool for harm reduction, and improving access to a faster and better informed emergency response, shared the news release.
“Lifeguard gives power and respect back to individuals who use drugs,” says Kyle Arnold, Harm Reduction Outreach Worker at NorWest Community Health Centres. “It recognizes that people use alone and also the need for the community to respond without stigma during times of crisis or in case of overdose.” “Since the Lifeguard App trials and launch in 2020, it has been successfully activated over 50,000 times and saved 33 lives in BC from accidental overdoses and deaths from drug toxicity”, says Lifeguard DH founder and CEO Jeff Hardy. “Our hope is that through Lifeguard’s partnership with NorWest Community Health Centres and The District of Thunder Bay Social Services Administration Board we can effect positive change and start saving lives immediately in Northwestern Ontario’s communities.”
Along with the use of this app, Lunny also stressed the importance of having access to a Naloxone kit at all times for any opioid user. “Naloxone is a medication that can be used to reverse an opioid overdose, and through your nasal is how it gets into the body. So, it’s a quirt that you put up in someone’s nose, and it’s a medicine that gets absorbed really quickly, and within a minute or two it can reverse an overdose. Naloxone is a medication that is available for anyone to have for free. So, we encourage anyone who is misusing opioids or at risk for overdosing, or if you know somebody who is, having a Naloxone kit can be lifesaving, and it has saved countless lives in our area,” she said. Naloxone kits are dispensed by the NWHU, as well as through pharmacies locally.
Lunny shared that several local organizations have also partnered to hire mobile crisis workers to accompany police for calls relating to mental health and addictions, and provide a better response to such calls in the area. “The NWHU the SLFNHA, the OPP and CMHA Kenora branch have started a project that we are working on together, where the CMHA has hired two mobile crisis workers who will be working with the police and going out to respond to help people who are in crisis, which very often is related to mental health and addictions. And the SLFNHA has hired outreach workers who are targeting some of our vulnerable populations regarding our mental health and addictions,” she said.
Turner shared, “The Lifeguard app has successfully prevented loss of life due to overdose in trial communities and may be very useful for our region as well. It is a great tool to help prevent overdoses and give our first responders the ability to respond to those in need. We have to understand that not every community and individual in our region has access to fast and reliable technology, or emergency responders through 911. This app may be a great tool, but for those who are not able to access it or don’t find it useful we recommend reaching out to local addictions and mental health services such as MHAP and Nodin Counselling to discuss other harm reduction options.”
Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre is open to support individuals battling mental health and addictions through their Mental Health and Addictions Program, which is open to anyone looking for mental health and/or addictions counseling, shared Turner. She added that there is also Nodin Counselling, provided by Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, and a number of harm reduction and referral services through the Northwestern Health Unit. “There is also the NAN Hope Mental Health and Addictions Support Access Program which can be accessed 24/7 at 1-844-626-4673. Anyone in immediate crisis should attend their local emergency services department,”