Many people die of opioid overdose because there’s no one around to notice they are in trouble. A new smartphone app was designed to tackle this problem and may hopefully save many lives.

The experimental app called “Second Chance” measures breathing to detect early signs of overdose. Even in the crucial minutes after people injected heroin and other illicit drugs. The app can then gather for help if breathing slows down or stops.

  • Nearly 130 people die every day in the U.S. from an opioid overdose – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Many times, death can be prevented if the opiate antidote naloxone, or Narcan, is administered in time. The problem is, those who overdose are unable to call for help.
  • Hence, researchers at the University of Washington have designed a smartphone app, called Second Chance. It uses sonar to observe breathing patterns, and can sense when an opioid overdose has occurred. So emergency services can be notified immediately.



Scientists have designed an app that gives smartphone the means to detect an opioid overdose and alert others for help. The app, called Second Chances, is still in development. The researchers hope to have it approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and eventually sell the technology.

Over 110 Americans dying each day from opioid overdoses, opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug overdose crisis in US history.

It’s a huge public health problem and also one where the diagnostic signs and mechanisms of how people die is really well-established,” says Jacob Sunshine. He’s an anaesthesiologist at the University of Washington and co-author of the Second Chances study. Published this week in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

In simple words, when people overdose, their breathing changes in a distinct and predictable pattern. Second Chances uses sonar technology to detect these changes. Likewise, they alert a friend/relative/doctor who can provide overdose-reversal drugs like Naloxone.

we don’t use cameras or identifying markers or reflect speech. We’re only using the reflection of sounds.”

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During an overdose, a person breathes slower or stops breathing altogether. Second Chance monitors a person’s breathing pattern by sending inaudible sound waves from the phone to a person’s chest. Then monitoring the way, the sound waves return to the phone. If the app observes decreased or absent breathing, it sends an alarm asking the person to commune with it. If the person fails to commune with the app, Second Chance will instantly contact emergency services. Sometimes, even a trusted friend /family member who has access to and can administer naloxone.

When the app observes decreased or absent breathing, it sends an alarm asking the person to interact with it. Before it contacts a trusted friend or emergency services.

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 Sunshine.

 “Less than eight breaths per minute is a common cut off point in a hospital that would trigger people to go to the bedside and make sure a patient is OK,” he said.



 The risky part was teaching the algorithm to identify which patterns corresponded to an overdose. To do that, the team tested Second Chances with 194 participants. At a safe injection site in Vancouver and also on simulated overdoses in an operating room. At the Vancouver clinic, participants injected opioids under staff supervision and were revived if they overdosed.

Second Chances, installed on a Galaxy S4, accurately identified about 96% of overdoses. However, the breathing stopped for 10 seconds or less and about 87% of cases where breathing notably slowed. It also accurately predicted 19 out of 20 simulated overdoses.

Importantly, the app shouldn’t be running all the time in the background. Rather, the idea is that people using opioids turn it on in the minutes before injection. Similarly, turn it off once it’s clear that they’re safe. It’s built for privacy, with an encrypted backend that is compliant with health privacy law.

People liked that we don’t use cameras or identifying markers or reflect speech,” says Nandakumar, a doctoral candidate in computer science at the University of Washington.

To conclude, the Second Chances team is working on improvising the user interface and making the algorithm more sensitive. False positives are a big concern. Not only are they alarming, but they could be a problem from a resource standpoint. If a false positive provoked emergency medical service. The hope, is that the app will help keep people safe until they can find more long-term support, says Sunshine.

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Vaibhav Tyagi

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