A smartphone app designed to help prevent drug overdoses in Alberta is now available provincewide, nearly a year after its initial release.
The Drug Overdose Response System, or DORS, allows users to start a timer when they start using drugs alone.
After the timer goes off, an alert requiring the user’s interaction sounds. If the user doesn’t shut off the alert, emergency services are called to respond to the user’s location.
Its function is similar to having a staff member at a supervised consumption site check on someone if they become unresponsive.
“We know, sadly, that about 70 per cent of opioid-related deaths happen in private residences — often alone,” Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Mike Ellis said Wednesday.
“The reality of addiction is that it drives people into isolation and when using opioids, this can be extremely dangerous.”
The app is free to download in the Apple and Google app stores.
According to Ellis, the app has led to “numerous successful emergency medical service deployments” from “hundreds” of unique sessions.
In its nearly year-long existence, the app has been downloaded 900 times and has 440 registered users.
The associate minister’s press secretary said the province is not planning more detailed information about how many people required EMS response, “in an effort to ensure users of the app feel safe and that their privacy is protected.”
Ellis said it’s the first tool in Alberta to support people using drugs at home.
“I think any system, there’s always room for improvement. But from what I’ve seen, it’s been a very successful system to this day,” he said.
Last year marked more than 1,700 opioid-related deaths in the province. Men between 30- to 39-years-old were the most common demographic group, according to provincial data.
In August 2021, the app was released to Calgary and immediate area. Edmonton and area joined in October 2021. AHS’ Calgary and Edmonton zones were added in November 2021 and the AHS South zone in March 2022.
Wednesday’s announcement added the AHS North and Central zones.
DORS, developed by Calgary workplace safety company Aware360, and the virtual opioid dependency program are part of the “comprehensive recovery-oriented system of care that we’re building here in Alberta,” Ellis said.
“We are always focused on the goal of ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to pursue recovery.”
An open letter issued Tuesday from more than 30 organizations concerned with the province’s substance-use policies questioned that recovery-oriented system and the options it provides Albertans.
The open letter also called out the lack of information available on treatment programs.
“The government of Alberta’s own framework calls for mandatory performance measurement and licensing requirements for treatment programs,” the letter reads.
“We have yet to see performance or licensing information materialize, and the recently announced My Recovery Plan provides no indication that these will be made publicly available.”
Aware360 CEO Steve Matthews said nearly a decade of developing similar apps for the province and energy industries proved the robustness of the company’s platform and technology.
“We know the functional capability of the app works, how it’s used in this particular situation. I know Alberta Health did a great job of getting lots of experts into the pilot phase and advising us on how to change the app.
“We were able to incorporate those suggestions from doctors, addiction experts and many people to make the app more functional in this particular case.”
Edmonton-Riverview MLA Lori Sigurdson said the app was a “useful tool, but does not do nearly enough to address the horrifying death toll due to drug poisonings in Alberta.”
“The UCP government is refusing to act on clear medical evidence and practices supported by experts. There are proven healthcare interventions that save lives, but the UCP have reduced access to them,” Sigurdson said in a statement.
“The UCP failure to properly respond to this crisis is costing lives, costing taxpayers, and using up already scarce resources in our ambulance and hospital systems.”
In light of multiple, repeated reports of no ambulance availability for emergencies like drug overdoses, the associate minister said the province is “working very hard to ensure that we have the appropriate responses,” pointing to a double-digit increase in funding for EMS.
So far, $400,000 has been committed to develop and support the operation of the app, the associate minister’s press secretary told Global News.
Holes in the app
One Calgary app developer says the DORS app is full of problems, from the user interface to the location data provided to emergency responders.
“As an example, I went into the application and entered the address as ‘my house’ – no address, no street – and was able to apply that to the address to be found,” Vince O’Gorman, CEO of Vog App Developers, said. “I don’t really understand how emergency services are going to find me based on that address. So have they fixed this? No.
“If we’re going province-wide with this and someone is trying to use this and doesn’t know their address and they can enter that kind of information into the address field, we have a major problem.”
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Another problem is the stability of the app – whether or not it can easily crash during a session, O’Gorman said.
“I was just randomly tapping around the page and above what we call the descriptive text on that page, just tapping it above it. I was able to make the app crash. Now a normal user is not going to go around tapping on a page, but you don’t know what kind of state of mind this person could be in,” O’Gorman said.
“In a situation where they’re needing emergency services or during the session, what does that say about this application? Considering that this application is supposed to be pretty bulletproof, it’s got a lot of holes in it.”
O’Gorman, who heads up a company that has created hundreds of apps, said the DORS app has been “poorly, poorly developed.”
He said the app looks like an app that would cost $20,000 to $30,000 to develop, not $400,000.
“Doing simple math, you’re running about $900 per user right now that are using this application. And again, $900 per person for something that has issues – it just doesn’t doesn’t make sense right now.”
–with files from Morgan Smith, 630 CHED