Post-overdose interventions triggered by calling 911: Centering the perspectives of people who use drugs (PWUDs) [2019]

Opioid overdose deaths have increased exponentially in the United States. Bystander response to opioid overdose ideally involves administering naloxone, providing rescue breathing, and calling 911 to summon emergency medical assistance. Recently in the US, public health and public safety agencies have begun seeking to use 911 calls as a method to identify and deliver post-overdose interventions to opioid overdose patients. Little is known about the opinions of PWUDs about the barriers, benefits, or potential harms of post-overdose interventions linked to the 911 system. We sought to understand the perspectives of PWUDs about a method for using 911 data to identify opioid overdose cases and trigger a post-overdose intervention.

Methods and findings
We conducted three focus groups with 11 PWUDs in 2018. Results are organized into 4 categories: willingness to call 911 (benefits and risks of calling), thoughts about a technique to identify opioid overdoses in 911 data (benefits and concerns), thoughts about the proposed post-overdose intervention (benefits and concerns), and recommendations for developing an ideal post-overdose intervention. For most participants, calling 911 was synonymous with “calling the police” and law enforcement-related fears were pervasive, limiting willingness to engage with the 911 system. The technique to identify opioid overdoses and the proposed post-overdose intervention were identified as potentially lifesaving, but the benefits were balanced by concerns related to law enforcement involvement, intervention timing, and risks to privacy/reputation. Nearly universally, participants wished for a way to summon emergency medical assistance without triggering a law enforcement response.

The fact that the 911 system in the US inextricably links emergency medical assistance with law enforcement response inherently problematizes calling 911 for PWUDs, and has implications for surveillance and intervention. It is imperative to center the perspectives of PWUDs when designing and implementing interventions that rely on the 911 system for activation.

Karla D. Wagner, Robert W. Harding, Richard Kelley, Brian Labus, Silvia R. Verdugo, Elizabeth Copulsky, Jeanette M. Bowles, Maria Luisa Mittal, Peter J. Davidson
PLOS ONE, October 17, 2019