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Hacking for a solution to opioid addiction

  • Sarah Ahern, second from left, participated on Team Ally at the Opioid Hackathon in Boston Sept. 9 to 11. Her team took one of the top five prizes. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/Sarah Ahern

  • Sarah Ahern, front center, works with Team Ally at the Opioid Hackathon earlier this month. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/Sarah Ahern



Recorder Staff
Tuesday, September 20, 2016

GREENFIELD — When it comes to addiction or opioid overdoses, time is of the essence. The quicker people can connect to a treatment service that could set them on the path to sobriety and save their life, the more likely they are to succeed, most experts agree.

So, what if a phone app could help a police officer or other first responders make that connection on the spot when they comes across that person on the street, or respond to an overdose at home?

For regional Opioid Task Force Director Paul McNeil, that’s a top priority, and it came a bit closer to becoming a reality earlier this month.

McNeil, along with local resident Sarah Ahern, the founder of the recovery advocacy group End The Stigma, spent Sept. 9 through 11 in Boston at Massachusetts General Hospital, at the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies and the GE Foundation’s Opioid Hackathon, a three-day conference that brought together doctors, engineers, designers, computer programmers, students, current or former addicts and others to develop new and innovative ways to address the ongoing opioid and addiction epidemic.

The event started with a round of individual 30-second pitches for fixing certain problems from the participating hackers, who then gravitated toward others with common interests and formed teams. They spent the rest of the time working on their ideas and hearing from panels of experts.

McNeil said he spent much of his time working with Team GAATE, or Gaining Access to Addiction Treatment Expertise.

That team, he said, worked to develop the one-stop-shop phone or tablet application, which would use a decision tree model to triage and direct treatment seekers and advocates to the most appropriate levels of care.

“If you’re a law enforcement official, and you see someone on the street and you want to connect them with a recovery coach, you can start right at ground zero,” said McNeil of the app. “They’d be guided through screening questions all the way to a partnering recovery coach.”

The first day, McNeil said he and the team worked until midnight, then got right back to it at 7 a.m. on Saturday.

Though they didn’t win one of the five $1,000 prizes for top innovations, he said they’ll have 90 days to pitch the project around the region and try to secure grants to continue developing it. The team that makes the most progress during that time will get $10,000 from the GE Foundation and business acceleration support through CAMTech.

Ahern’s team, Team Ally, did take one of the five top spots in the Anti-Stigma category for their naloxone carrying pouch designed to de-stigmatize opioid use and enable community responders to make Narcan, the overdose reversal drug, quickly available when and where it is needed.

The team consisted of business entrepreneurs, an engineer, a nonprofit veteran and three Massachusetts General Hospital physicians, among others. The pouch would be made of temperature-regulating material to keep the medication effective, she said, and would be marked with a white cross with purple lettering that reads “ally,” – a logo of her own design – to let people know the carrier has Narcan with them. A public service campaign coinciding with the product’s launch would aim to reduce stigma around carrying one, she said.

“We need more awareness and we need to make it more accessible,” she said of Narcan. “You can clip it on your belt. I’ve had four family members overdose and I’ve administered it before. It’s stressful and when your loved one is down you’re doing what you can as fast as possible, you don’t want to be rummaging through drawers.”

She said the group has already received orders before the conference’s conclusion. “MGH doctors said they want it now,” she said.

“It was the most energizing professional event I’ve ever attended in the public health sector,” said McNeil, of the event.

You can reach Tom Relihan at: 413-772-0261, ext. 264 or trelihan@recorder.com On Twitter, @RecorderTom