Opioid Overdose: There’s An App For That

Nearly 130 people die every day by overdosing on opioids in the United States. Aside for the loss of a loved one, this misuse of opioids also has major implications on the economy, it’s estimated to cost the $78.5 billion each year in the United States alone.

So what’s being done to help over come this national crisis? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been setting its focus on five main pieces:

1.       Improving access to treatment and recovery services

2.       Promoting use of overdose-reversing drugs

3.       Strengthening our understanding of the epidemic through better public health surveillance

4.       Providing support for cutting-edge research on pain and addiction

5.       Advancing better practices for pain management


All five of these are a great place to start, but new research is showing that with the use of sound waves can detect the moment a drug users breath slows down and becomes gravely shallow.

A cellphone application, called Second Chance, was developed by a team at the University of Washington. The app uses sonar technology to monitor the users BPM and can sense when an overdose has occurred. The app accurately detects overdose-related symptoms about 90 percent of the time and can track someone’s breathing from up to 3 feet away.


Shyam Gollakota, who is an associate professor at the University of Washington’s (UW) Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, explained, “the idea is that people can use the app during opioid use so that if they overdose, the phone can potentially connect them to a friend or emergency services to provide naloxone”.

The app works by transmitting sound waves from the cell phone to a person’s chest and tracking how the waves return back to the cellphone, allowing it to specifically identify any changes in the person’s breathing pattern.

“We’re looking for two main precursors to opioid overdose: when a person stops breathing, or when a person’s breathing rate is seven breaths per minute or lower,” said co-corresponding author Dr. Jacob Sunshine, who is an assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the UW School of Medicine. “Less than eight breaths per minute is a common cutoff point in a hospital that would trigger people to go to the bedside and make sure a patient is OK.”

Though Second Chance is not yet available to the public, the research team has applied for its approved from the FDA and is planning on commercializing the newfound technology.

And while we know we cannot stop people from using drugs, we do things to decrease the chances of death occurring. Dr. Sunshine explained it well, “we hope that by keeping people safer, they can eventually access long-term treatment”.


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About the Author: Taylor Genter

Taylor is the Marketing Specialist at Extract with experience in data analytics, graphic design, and both digital and social media marketing.  She earned her Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Marketing at the University of Wisconsin- Whitewater. Taylor enjoys analyzing people’s behaviors and attitudes to find out what motivates them, and then curating better ways to communicate with them.