Trials underway for washroom sensors that monitor for toxic drug poisonings

New trials at Island Health sites are transforming washrooms into spaces that help save lives and support staff by using technology to monitor for toxic drug poisonings.

The trials involve the installation of motion detection sensors in a group of washrooms identified as high-risk spaces for drug poisonings. The sensors monitor movement and how long a person has occupied the washroom, and each site sets time limits based on experience and needs.

For example, if a washroom occupant hasn’t moved for a minute, or has been in the washroom for 10 minutes, a notification is sent via text to designated responders such as clinicians, site supervisors and administrative staff who then follow up. The trials have already likely led to a life being saved, thanks to an Island Health staff member who attended to an unresponsive person in one of the washrooms after being alerted by the sensor system.

Trials began in October at two locales in Courtenay (a Mental Health and Substance Use services site and the Comox Valley Nursing Centre), and are scheduled to begin in March at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. They will run for a minimum of three months.

“We know that the shame and stigma of addictions have driven people to use alone – but given the increasingly toxic drug supply, using alone can be fatal,” says Jennifer Whiteside, minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “Our government is working to break down the shame and stigma of addictions as we continue to expand and evolve our response to the toxic drug crisis. These trials by Island Health are another action to save lives and better support staff.”

“The sensor project marks one of the first trials to be launched under Island Health’s innovation program, which explores new ideas and approaches to improve the way health care is delivered,” says Leah Hollins, chair of Island Health’s Board of Directors. “The value of this trial is that we’re turning a restroom into a life-saving service – and I want to acknowledge the work of everyone involved in moving this important initiative forward.”

Innovation at Island Health relies on the input of staff, physicians, partners – and most importantly, patients. Their contributions are enhanced by an innovation program consisting of an Innovation Lab that generates and tests potential solutions, and a product team that conducts trials for projects across the Island Health region.

The Comox Valley Healthcare Foundation (CVHF) is also helping support the Courtenay pilot project. “We want to give staff the ability to monitor in the best possible way and make sure patients receive care in a timely fashion if anything goes wrong,” says Bill Anglin, president of CVHF’s Board of Directors. “This project equips health-care staff with what is needed and supports patients to receive critical care, two priorities we take really seriously at the foundation.”

The project, which began in fall 2021, was a team effort that involved input from Island Health medical health officers, managers, clinicians and two peer advisors. A key partner in the effort is Brave Co-Op, the Vancouver company behind the sensors. Their collaboration with Island Health marks the first installation of its sensors on Vancouver Island.

“Working with Island Health is exciting. The direct impact in a new location is always wonderful, but knowing how thoughtfully this is being approached and considered, with the goal of learnings for all of us, is huge,” says Gordon Casey, Brave Co-Op’s founder and CEO. “Most of the groups we work with do not have capacity to take the time to document their thoughts, feedback, concerns and then communicate them back to us – so it’s a real privilege to be able to do that.”

“The sensor system gives that level of dignity that we want to provide to everyone who uses our services,” says Lesley Howie, director of Island Health’s Mental Health and Substance Use program for the North Island. “It’s a very visible and concrete action that we as a service can provide. And it reassures staff that there’s a system in place. I am hopeful that this is a forerunner for something that will be much bigger.”

In 2022, there were at least 2,272 illicit drug toxicity deaths in B.C., with 386 of those occurring in the Island Health region.