Wearables a potential weapon for stemming opioid addiction [Q&A]

Close up of rescription drug label on bottle

Research published earlier this summer explored whether a wristband wearable device could help opioid users stay on target with rehabilitation while also aiding management of such medication.

It’s timely, given the drug overdose epidemic in the U.S. In 2014, for instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than six of 10 overdoses involved an opioid.

Such a startling figure represents a prime reason Stephanie Carreiro (pictured right), of the department of emergency medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, embarked on the study, which involved 30 emergency room patients who wore a wristband biosensor device that measured electrodermal activity, skin temperature and locomotion data.

The results revealed that the device illustrated a consistent physiologic pattern after opioid administration; differences between patterns of heavy and non-heavy opioid users were noted. While further research is needed before wearables can be woven into drug treatment programs, the data gathered is a start for identifying when such drugs are needed and how to better manage pain medication, according to Carreiro. FierceMobileHealthcare spoke with her about the findings, as well as what she believes is needed when it comes to wearables and pain management.

FierceMobileHealthcare: What prompted you to launch the study?

Stephanie Carreiro: As an emergency physician, I see the devastating consequences of substance abuse disorders in my practice on a daily basis. Like many other physicians and researchers, my goal is to develop novel approaches to substance abuse disorders that can lead to effective and practical treatment options. Wearable technology is especially appealing because it is already so familiar and acceptable to our patients and allows them to take an active role in their treatment plan.

FMH: Talk about the importance of stemming medication use and improving addiction treatment.

Carreiro: Opioids are an extremely effective option for the treatment severe acute pain, but unfortunately we have limited alternative medications for this purpose. The ability to identify those patients at highest risk for addiction would allow us to increase monitoring, limit therapy duration and offer support services, with the ultimate goal of avoiding the transition from therapeutic use to problematic use.

FMH: More data clearly is needed before wearables can be relied upon for these efforts. What is the next step in advancing the use of such tools?

Carreiro: Before the sensors can be used in treatment populations, the biometric profiles that identify opioid use must be validated across a variety of settings, physiologic conditions, opioid types and patient characteristics. We currently have several studies underway to collect this data.

FMH: How did participants react to the tools?    

Carreiro: Overall participants responded very positively to the wearable sensors. When asked, the majority reported they would wear a sensor, or even two sensors, outside the hospital in everyday life.  Most participants were very supportive of the idea that this could be used to help treat substance abuse.

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.