Israeli prof blazes trail to help heroin overdosers, says anyone can save a life

David Schwartz says he has shown that the general public can become emergency responders, guided by an app; thinks overdose treatment should become as accessible as defibrillators

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A man with a syringe used to inject heroin (iStock)
A man with a syringe used to inject heroin (iStock)

Anyone can reverse a heroin overdose and there is “immense” potential for members of the public to save lives through emergency response, an Israeli researcher has announced after completing a year-long study.

David Schwartz of Bar Ilan University said that his research, supported by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse and just published in Lancet’s peer-reviewed EClinicalMedicine journal, suggests that medicine to reverse heroin overdoses should become as accessible as defibrillators.

He said his study shows that volunteers, guided by a user-friendly app, are highly capable of helping.

“Opioid addiction and overdose is a global problem and we’ve shown that our emergency response community approach, combining the best aspects of community and technology, can have an immediate life-saving impact,” Schwartz told The Times of Israel

In 2018, the United States surgeon general, Jerome M. Adams, issued a national advisory asking more Americans to carry and become familiar with how to administer naloxone, a medicine that is injected to reverse overdoses, but the call was not widely met.

A man lying down on the floor after a drug overdose (iStock)

The idea of developing apps and using them to turn volunteers into overdose responders isn’t new, but there is limited research on the effectiveness of this approach. Schwartz, a professor of information systems, felt that clear findings were needed to establish its usefulness.

He recruited volunteers in Philadelphia, where drug overdoses are rife, who were prepared to carry naloxone. He ran the study together with researchers from Philadelphia’s Drexel University.

They enrolled 200 volunteers who agreed to be paged if someone near them overdosed, whereupon they would administer naloxone, guided by a smartphone app with videos and other resources that the researchers produced. Over the year-long pilot, just over one in three volunteers went to help after an overdose, and in 60 percent of those cases, they beat emergency responder teams and had administered the naloxone more than five minutes before medics arrived.

Schwartz said that this outcome is exciting, given that when it comes to drug overdose reversal, saving time means potentially saving lives.

David Schwartz of Bar Ilan University (right) with Stephen Lankenau, of Drexel University, co-author of his study on helping drug addicts who have overdosed

He said it paves the way for programs in which volunteers — including but not limited to social workers as well as addicts themselves — carry naloxone and download an app that both generates alerts when their help is needed, and guides them through administering naloxone.

“The life-saving potential is immense if there are thousands of people carrying naloxone and connected to nearby emergency alerts,” he said.

Schwartz and his fellow authors wrote in their study that just as heart attack patients are often saved by members of the public with first aid training and/or the use of defibrillators, drug users who overdose should have similar help.

“It is time to recognize that opioid use disorder patients can benefit from similar forms of community support that we advance for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest,” they recommended.

read more: