National recognition for opioid overdose platform

GUELPH – Two local health agencies have received national recognition for taking proactive steps to combat the opioid crisis.

On June 27 Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH) and the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy learned their FAST (flexible, accessible, scalable, timely) Overdose Alert Platform was one of two finalists for the MaRS Health Opioid Data Challenge, winning $50,000 to further develop the platform.

“It’s a good news story for our community because it shows that we’re working together,” said  Kate Vsetula, co-chair of Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy.

“This didn’t happen in a silo, this was partners coming together saying, ‘This is the issue, how do we solve it?’ We need information faster and worked together on putting the concept together.”

FAST is a way for community partners to share information with public health regarding opioid use and then receive reports analyzing that information at least once a week.

“Before FAST the way of gathering information about a potential overdose or overdose was not systematic or organized,” Vsetula said.

“This allows us to have, in real time, access to information about what’s happening so that we can respond appropriately, as with any public health issue.”

The data complements the information public health routinely gathers.

“One of our functions is to really understand the nature of an issue like the opioid crisis, be able to measure it as it unfolds and be able to respond to it in real time as best as we can based upon the local needs in our community,” said WDGPH associate medical officer of health Dr. Matthew Tenenbaum.

“So we do collect data from a number of sources, things like death data from the coroner, data about emergency department visits from people who go to local hospitals, data about prescription of opioids from local physicians and providers, things like that.”

With FAST, when community partners interacting with substances users encounter an overdose, or adverse reaction that looks like an overdose, they fill out a form online and public health receives that information in real time.

“As we get that data we are able to analyze it using staff we have in the health unit for things like changes in the number of overdoses we’re seeing, changes in the age, the time of day, location, things like that, and also look for new pieces of information about the kinds of risk people might be experiencing,” Tenenbaum said.

Once risks are analyzed, an alert is sent out if there’s a new or significant one identified.

“We review the information at a minimum at least once weekly,” he said.

“That being said, if we get reports on Thursday and Friday that suggest there’s a risk then we’ll begin having a conversation sooner – we won’t wait a full week.”

Since FAST’s inception last summer in Guelph, seven alerts have been issued.

One was issued  in March, Tenenbaum said, when Guelph was experiencing a few overdose-related deaths linked to contaminated Xanax pills.

“Basically they were tablets out in the community which weren’t real Xanax but were made to look like Xanax tabs and were actually containing fentanyl,” he said.

Public health and its partners concluded the pills were a new trend and issued an alert with information about the fake pills, including a poster with a photo of real and fake Xanax that was posted in public places and partners’ offices.

“It goes up on our website, it goes up on our social media so that people who work with people who use drugs can share that information … and people who use drugs are also able to see that information for themselves so that they can know to avoid that risk,” Tenenbaum said.

“We also use that as an opportunity to reinforce our basic messaging about risk reduction; things like carrying Naloxone, never using alone, using in small dosages, starting low and going slow and really reiterating some of those harm reduction messages that are always important.”

The FAST platform allows public health to keep track of what’s going on locally.

“We know that the opioid issue is a big issue across the province, across the country and even across other countries, but every community you go to, it’s always a little bit different,” he said.

“We try to base our decisions and our actions as best we can on local information.”

By participating in MaRS Health’s Opioid Data Challenge, WDGPH has been able to share the FAST platform with other public health agencies across Canada.

Tenenbaum said WDGPH is working with the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit, Brant County Health Unit and Public Health Agency of Canada in Whitehorse, Yukon to help them use some of the tools WDGPH has developed and share what has worked and what hasn’t worked.

“The ultimate goal is it allows all of us, not just locally but across Canada, to respond better to the opioid crisis,” Tenenbaum said.

“We’re hoping that by virtue of having a successful model that we can build upon we’re actually going to reduce substance use harms and save more lives.”

The $50,000 prize will help the local health unit improve its system, build on monitoring infrastructure and reporting processes and improve response times.

The money will also allow WDGPH to develop dashboards to show three-month periods of data.

“It actually helps describe a bit better what the opioid phenomenon looks like locally,” Tenenbaum said.

Community partners involved with FAST include: HIV/AIDS Resources and Community Health (ARCH), Sanguen Health Centre, Guelph Community Health Centre (GCHC), WDGPH, Hope House, The Drop-In Centre, Wyndham House, Specialized Outreach Services (SOS), Family and Children’s Services (FCS), Family Counselling and Support Services, Guelph Police and Stonehenge Therapeutic Community.

“We know that the opioid issue, as much as it’s a public health issue, it’s ultimately going to require a whole community response to get it under control and reduce harms, reduce overdoses, reduce deaths,” Tenenbaum said.