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New data shows that homelessness is a women’s rights issue

THE CONVERSATION

Co-written by Dr. Jesse Jenkinson

Visible homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the housing crisis across Canada. For women, girls and gender-diverse people, homelessness is often hidden, meaning that they are more likely to avoid shelters, couch surf or remain in abusive relationships than end up on the streets. Because of this, we know less about their experiences.

New data from the Pan-Canadian Women’s Housing and Homelessness Survey, the largest gender-specific data collection of its kind in Canada, tells us a clear story.

Lack of access to housing has gendered causes and effects, and gender equality in Canada depends on fair access to adequate housing. This survey, completed by 500 women and gender-diverse people in 12 provinces and territories, shows us why housing is a women’s rights issue.

Opinion: Vaccine for kids under 12 by Halloween? Research shows it could happen. Now, Canada needs to plan for an equitable rollout

TORONTO STAR

By Tara Kiran, Noah Ivers, Sabina Vohra-Miller

We all want the pandemic to be over. Last week, that dream came closer to reality.

Pfizer released a statement showing an effective and safe vaccine in children aged 5 to 11. Pfizer will soon submit the full data package to Health Canada and If the data is considered sufficient, and no concerns are identified, the vaccine could be approved for this age group as early as Halloween.

A COVID-19 vaccine for children is a game-changer. It not only protects our kids from getting COVID-19 and its related complications, it also protects their loved ones and the wider community. It will limit transmission of the virus—preventing classes from being sent home, allowing a return to sports and other activities, and reduces the risk of unknowingly passing the virus on to someone more vulnerable like a grandparent.

But the vaccine only works if people get it.

We must work quickly to get the largest number of kids vaccinated as fast as possible—and ensure an equitable roll-out prioritizing those most at-risk. The most efficient and effective way to do so is by bringing vaccines to schools.

90 per cent of adults who are homeless experienced childhood trauma, meta-analysis shows

UNITY HEALTH TORONTO

A new paper published by Unity Health Toronto researchers found most adults experiencing homelessness have faced an incredible burden of childhood trauma.

The paper, published in Lancet Public Health, found nine in 10 homeless adults have been exposed to at least one adverse childhood experience and over half have been exposed to four or more adverse childhood experiences. Previous research in the general population has shown that those exposed to four or more childhood traumas were 17 times more likely to have attempted suicide than those who had not experienced trauma in childhood.

Michael Liu, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Michael Liu, lead author of the study, is a research coordinator at St. Michael’s MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, a medical student at Harvard University and a Rhodes Scholar. We spoke with Michael, a Toronto native, about the systematic review and meta-analysis and why he says services must be trauma-informed and there must be a greater emphasis on early-intervention.

The paper sought to answer the question: how often have adults experiencing homelessness had an adverse childhood experience? Why is this important to investigate?

There’s lots of literature on adverse childhood experiences in the general public, but I think this is a really under-appreciated aspect of homelessness. Adverse childhood experiences encompass potentially traumatic events occurring before the age of 18 years, such as abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction.

In the late 1990s, studies showed us that early trauma affects health throughout one’s entire life course. The accumulation of toxic stress affects just about everything – from our mental health to chronic disease. We know that toxic stress can lead to disrupted brain development, with long-term consequences for learning, behaviour, and broad social outcomes. So we wanted to understand how big of a problem is early trauma in the homeless population, and if it is, what can we do about it? What do policymakers need to know?

Were the findings surprising to you?

We thought that adverse childhood experiences in this population would be an issue, but it’s even more prevalent than we expected. For it to be that high is really shocking, and is just further evidence of how strongly adverse childhood experiences are tied to homelessness and poor health.

While adverse childhood experiences are major risk factors for homelessness, they are not deterministic on their own. Other factors such as poverty, poor health, and systemic racism are also strong risk factors. The data challenges the pervasive narrative that homelessness is a culmination of individual choices. This is a population that is already suffering so much in the present, and what the analysis did was confirm that many have suffered a great deal in the past, too.

Where do we go from here?

We need to redouble our efforts to support this population. We know that this population has experienced an incredible burden of trauma, so this should change how we serve and support this population. When 90 per cent of your population have been exposed to an adverse childhood experience and over half have been severely affected, that should alter how we think about the problem.

First, services must be trauma-informed. Staff who work in the system should be fully trained in providing trauma-informed care. For example, understanding how adverse childhood experiences affect health, reducing practices that might inadvertently re-traumatize someone, prioritizing physical and emotional safety, and fostering collaborative and trusting relationships.

Second, we need to offer people the basic right to housing without any preconditions, such as sobriety or committing to seeing a psychiatrist. Conditional housing is not trauma-informed.

Third, there should be greater emphasis on early intervention. Given that adverse childhood experiences are common risk factors for homelessness and poor health, policies and interventions to prevent adverse childhood experiences from occurring early in the life course should be implemented. We need to address homelessness at the root.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The findings could have a lot of implications for public health practice, prevention of homelessness, and early interventions as a whole. There’s a lot more work that I hope MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions and Canada will do to create actual systemic change to alleviate adverse childhood experiences and homelessness.

Living in encampments is more than just a pandemic issue, researchers find

Lire cet article en français

HEALTHY DEBATE

By Zoë Dodd, Samantha Young, Lisa Boucher, Abeera Shahid, Melanie Brown, Kimia Khoee, and Ahmed Bayoumi

While people have been living in encampments for decades, they have never been as visible as during the COVID-19 pandemic. The City of Toronto has also been dismantling encampments for a long time – more than 700 were dismantled in 2019 – but never as forcefully as this year. Yet, in all of the discussions about how politicians, police and city workers should respond to encampments, there has been little effort to understand why encampments exist and what they mean to people living in them.

As researchers at MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at Unity Health Toronto, we have been studying outreach services provided to people who live in encampments. As part of a large study of the effects of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic on people experiencing marginalization, we surveyed 127 residents of Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods, Alexandra Park, Lamport Stadium, Moss Park, Cherry Beach and Sanctuary encampments between March and June 2021 (and before the most recent evictions in July 2021). While our full report will be released in October, we believe it pertinent to release these preliminary findings to add to the current conversation on encampment evictions.

Overall, our findings suggest that the story of encampments is complex. Five results of our survey are especially important and may contradict commonly held assumptions.

La vie dans les campements est bien plus qu’un simple problème lié à la pandémie, selon des chercheurs

Par Zoë Dodd, Samantha Young, Lisa Boucher, Abeera Shahid, Melanie Brown, Kimia Khoee et Ahmed Bayoumi

Bien que des gens vivent dans des campements depuis des décennies, ils n’ont jamais été aussi en évidence que pendant la pandémie de COVID-19. La Ville de Toronto démantèle depuis des années des campements (plus de 700 l’ont été en 2019), mais jamais d’une façon aussi énergique que cette année. Malgré toutes les discussions sur la façon dont les politiciens, la police et les employés municipaux devraient réagir à la présence de campements, peu d’efforts ont été faits pour comprendre la raison d’être de ces derniers et ce qu’ils signifient pour les personnes qui y vivent.

En tant que chercheurs du Centre MAP pour des solutions de santé urbaine de Unity Health Toronto, nous avons étudié les services de proximité fournis aux personnes qui vivent dans des campements. Dans le cadre d’une vaste étude sur les effets des mesures liées à la pandémie de COVID-19 sur les personnes en situation de marginalisation, nous avons interrogé 127 résidents des campements de Trinity Bellwoods, d’Alexandra Park, du Lamport Stadium, de Moss Park, de Cherry Beach et de Sanctuary à Toronto entre mars et juin 2021 (et avant les expulsions les plus récentes en juillet 2021). Notre rapport complet sera publié en octobre, mais nous pensons qu’il est pertinent de diffuser ces conclusions préliminaires pour enrichir le débat actuel portant sur le phénomène des expulsions de campements. Dans l’ensemble, nos résultats suggèrent que le dossier des campements est complexe. Cinq résultats de notre enquête sont particulièrement importants et sont susceptibles de démentir des hypothèses largement répandues.

Health care providers, scientists and researchers at MAP call for City Council to permit Multi-Tenant Houses in all areas of Toronto

September 28, 2021                               

Re: Planning and Housing Committee Item PH25.10 – New Regulatory Framework for Multi-Tenant Houses

We would like to acknowledge this matter was brought to our attention by individuals with lived experience in Multi-Tenant Houses who have raised this as an area of community priority.

We are health care providers, scientists and researchers who work in association with MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital. We live in all areas of the city, and are united in our concern about the lack of good quality, permanent and deeply affordable housing in Toronto. We are pleased that the City of Toronto has put forth a framework to permit and regulate Multi-Tenant Houses across the city, and we expect the Mayor and Councillors who represent us to support this framework. We are calling on our Mayor and City Councillors to support the motion to regulate Multi-Tenant Houses across Toronto at the October 1st, 2021 session of City Council. We will be contacting our Councillors about this motion, and encouraging our co-workers, neighbours and community to do the same.

Multi-Tenant Houses (MTH), also known as rooming houses, have long been part of Toronto’s housing structure and make a significant contribution to the limited affordable housing stock in our city. A diverse cross-section of people rely on this housing stock, including people with lower incomes, students, recent immigrants, migrant workers, and people with disabilities.

In 1998, the provincial government amalgamated six municipalities to create the new “mega city” of Toronto. While MTH had been legally permitted in some of these municipalities, such as the old city of Toronto, they were not permitted in the former cities of North York, East York and Scarborough. More than 20 years later, Toronto has still not harmonized by-laws across the city, and MTH are still not technically allowed to exist in some areas.

This doesn’t mean they don’t exist—they do and always have. Instead, it means that tenants living in unregulated and unlicensed MTH have fewer options to protect their health and safety. This has ripple effects for the surrounding communities, which are much safer when MTH are regulated.

According to City of Toronto data, licensed MTH are far safer than unlicensed MTH. For instance, between the years 2010 to 2020, there were 18 MTH that were involved in fire fatalities and serious injuries, 16 of which were unlicensed. Additionally, the vast majority of MTH charges laid by Municipal Licensing & Standards are in neighbourhoods where they are not permitted. The Maytree Foundation’s human rights review of  Toronto’s MTH policies also reported that individuals living in MTH in unpermitted areas are less likely to report substandard conditions and, therefore, live at greater risk of harm to their health and personal safety. Unpermitted houses are also more likely to violate existing regulations (i.e., the Ontario Building Code).

As health care providers and researchers, we see the impacts of sub-standard housing and housing instability on wellbeing, and on mental and physical health. We also know that when someone loses their housing, it has adverse consequences for their lives, families and communities. For instance, research suggests that when people experience involuntary loss of housing, they are more likely to also lose their job. We know that MTH often provides the only affordable option in the private housing market, and can potentially help people avoid homelessness.

Research on permitted MTH has shown that people of lower socioeconomic background and with existing health conditions have often resided in houses that are in poor physical condition. This is likely even worse for houses that are unpermitted. Good housing quality is critical for health—factors such as adequate space allocation, indoor air quality and proper waste and pest management are essential for disease prevention, especially in congregate living settings.  Permitting and regulating MTH in unpermitted areas will create a means for the City to enforce quality standards across the City, which will ultimately benefit both tenants and surrounding communities.

The City staff report notes that the proposed framework will aim to take a phased approach that will include education and outreach to tenants on their rights, as well as support for landlords to meet property standards. We applaud the City for including this in their plan as it can help sustain existing MTH and provide opportunities to invest in improving this affordable housing stock.

From our vantage point within the health care sector, we would also like to share the following recommendations with City Council:

  1. Establish equitable support services to help MTH tenants retain their housing and assist qualifying landlords retain their homeownership once their area of the city is regulated. This could be achieved through collaboration with community agencies as well as establishing grant programs.
  2. Ensure that enforcement of the new regulations does not further harm and marginalize groups who are likely to live in MTH —this will be key to meeting the City’s human rights approach.
  3. At implementation, continue to engage in the multi-divisional cross collaboration (Fire Services; Toronto Building, Municipal Licensing & Standards; City Planning; Toronto Public Health) that was used to develop the new framework.  This collaboration will contribute to the development of a more robust policy practice in relation to housing, health and community safety. 

Ultimately, a harmonized MTH regulation can help improve current policy and practices and will allow for this affordable housing stock to be better integrated within our housing continuum.

We commend the City for taking steps to solving this long standing equity issue in our city. We encourage the City to continue to consult the community in finding ways to sustain and strengthen the quality of this affordable housing stock and ask the Mayor and City Council to support the regulation of MTH across Toronto at the upcoming Council meeting. This will align with the City’s commitment to advance a human rights based approach to housing as outlined in Housing TO 2020-2030 Action Plan.

What You Can Do

Call Your City Councillor and the Mayor: Members of Council Contact Information

Sign Community petition: The Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA)

Take the ACTO and CERA survey on Multi-Tenant Housing: Survey  

Find More Information

City of Toronto: Multi-Tenant (Rooming) Houses Maytree Foundation: A Human Rights Review of Toronto’s Multi-Tenant Homes Policies

Signed by health care providers, scientists and researchers who work in association with MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital:

  1. Stephen Hwang, Director, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Unity Health Toronto
  2. Ann Burchell, Scientist
  3. Andrew Pinto, Scientist and Physician
  4. Jesse Jenkinson, Postdoctoral Research Fellow
  5. Uzma Ahmed, Research Coordinator
  6. Galo F. Ginocchio, Research Coordinator
  7. Olivia Spandier, Research Coordinator
  8. Y. Celia Huang, Research Coordinator
  9. Ashley Mah, Research Co-ordinator
  10. Triti Khorasheh, Research Coordinator
  11. Madison Ford, Research Coordinator
  12. Anaita Kharwanwala, Administrative Assistant
  13. Anna Yeung, Research Manager
  14. Nav Persaud, Scientist, Family Physician, Canada Research Chair in Health Justice
  15. Flora Matheson, Scientist
  16. Ruby Sniderman, Research Manager
  17. Kimberly Devotta, Research Manager
  18. Alexandra Carasco, Research Coordinator
  19. Evie Gogosis, Research Manager
  20. Aine Workentin, Research Coordinator
  21. James Watson, Research Manager
  22. Andree Schuler, Research Associate
  23. Ahmed Bayoumi, Fondation Baxter and Alma Ricard Chair in Inner City Health, MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Unity Health Toronto
  24. Fred Ellerington, Homeless Outreach Counsellor
  25. Zoe Dodd, MES, Community Scholar
  26. Vera Dounaevskaia , MD
  27. Rosane Nisenbaum, Biostatistician
  28. Dr. James Rassos, GIM Staff Physician
  29. Jessica Demeria, Indigenous research coordinator
  30. Sharmistha Mishra, Infectious Disease Physician and Associate Professor, University of Toronto
  31. Anne-Marie Tynan, Research Program Manager
  32. Jemal Demeke, Research Coordinator
  33. Mackenzie Hamilton, Junior Data Science Specialist
  34. Kate Francombe Pridham, Research Program Manager, Homelessness, Housing, and Health
  35. Ketan Shankardass, Affiliate Scientist
  36. Cheryl Rowe, Community Psychiatrist
  37. Stefan Baral, Family and Population Health Physician, Inner City Health Associates
  38. Suzanne Shoush, Graduate student, Staff Physician, St. Michael’s Unity Health
  39. Ayan Yusuf, Research Coordinator
  40. James Kitchens, Staff Physician, St. Michael’s Hospital
  41. Nazlee Maghsoudi, Research Manager
  42. Angela Onkay Ho, Psychiatrist
  43. Mara Waters, Internal medicine resident
  44. Tracy Rook, Registered Nurse
  45. Melissa Capozzolo, Registered Practical Nurse
  46. Shazeen Suleman, Investigator
  47. Aaron Orkin, Physician
  48. Nigel Champion, Resident Doctor
  49. Emily Holton, Communications Manager
  50. İrem Burcu Baltaş, Registered Nurse
  51. Gillian Kennedy, Registered Nurse
  52. Michelle Catchpole, Research Business Analyst
  53. Charles Ozzoude, Researcher
  54. Roisin McElroy, MD CCFP(EM)
  55. John Ecker, Research Manager
  56. Brooke Fraser , Internal medicine resident – PGY2 
  57. Carol Munroe, Medical Admin Administrator
  58. Erica Di Ruggiero, Associate Professor
  59. Kristy Yiu, Research Coordinator
  60. Peter Gozdyra, Visiting Researcher
  61. Naheed Dosani, Lecturer, Department of Family & Community Medicine, University of Toronto
  62. Madeleine Ritts, Social worker
  63. Suzanne Zerger, Research Program Manager
  64. Billie-Jo Hardy, Scientist, WIHV, Women’s College Hospital
  65. David Reycraft , Director – Housing Services Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services
  66. Sara Pickersgill, MD
  67. Andrea A. Cortinois, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto
  68. Deborah Pink, Physician
  69. Asha Aggarwal, Social Worker
  70. Paul Zijlstra, Registered Practical Nurse
  71. Lisa Forman, Associate Professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto
  72. James Lachaud, Postdoctoral researcher
  73. Luke Hays, Emergency Doctor
  74. Darryl Langendoen, Social Worker
  75. Opal Sparks, Advocate
  76. Rene Adams, Community Expert
  77. Samantha Green, Family Physician, Inner City Health Associates and Unity Health Toronto
  78. Maryam Daneshvarfard, Research Coordinator
  79. Carol Strike, Professor/Scientist
  80. Heather McLean, Research Assistant I
  81. Emilie Frenette, NP-PHC
  82. George Da Silva, Person who was homeless (Peer Research Assistant)
  83. Jesse Knight, PhD Candidate
  84. Veronica Snooks, Community Expert Group member, Dream team member, PWLE caucas member
  85. Terry Pariseau, Coordinated Access Engagement Coordinator
  86. Denise Gastaldo, Associate Professor, University of Toronto
  87. Sa’ad Talia , Community Expert Group Research Consultant
  88. Veronica van Dam, Nurse practitioner
  89. Gary Bloch, Family Physician; Associate Professor, University of Toronto
  90. Elizabeth Harrison, Registered Nurse
  91. Adam Suleman, Resident Physician
  92. Daniela Mergarten, Co-Chair of the lived experience caucus of the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness
  93. Pearl Buhariwala, Research Coordinator
  94. Yue Chen, Junior Data Scientist
  95. Nicole Champagne, Social Worker
  96. Kira Heineck, Executive Director, Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness
  97. Chan Drepaul, Program Manager
  98. Dr Laura Pacione, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
  99. Drew Silverthorn, Community Mental Health Social Worker
  100. Arthur McLuhan, Postdoctoral Research Fellow
  101. Amy Katz , Knowledge Translation Specialist
  102. Kim Chamberland, Registered Nurse
  103. Bee Lee Soh, Community Expert Group member
  104. Dr. Farah N. Mawani, Postdoctoral Fellow
  105. Vikram Jayanth Ramalingam Research Assistant
  106. Reena Pattani, Physician
  107. John Sollazzo, Emergency Physician
  108. Alyssa Ranieri, Homeless Outreach Counsellor
  109. Christina HW Kim, Resident Physician
  110. Wale Ajiboye, Senior Research Associate
  111. Philip Garwood, Resident Doctor

Opinion: The solution to homeless encampments is making them unnecessary, not illegal

THE CONVERSATION

By Drs. Stephen Hwang and Jesse Jenkinson

The number of people visibly living in encampments has increased throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led to cities — including Toronto, Victoria and Vancouver — to work with encampment residents to move them into shelters, hotel spaces and more rarely, stable housing.

When those offers are declined, the next step can be the removal of residents’ belongings, and sometimes — such as recent events in Toronto and Halifax — violent evictions by police.

As researchers who work to improve the health and well-being of people who experience of homelessness, we are deeply concerned about the long-term consequences of this approach. Not only is it morally questionable to punish the most vulnerable, it isn’t an effective strategy for addressing homelessness. Criminalizing poverty doesn’t work.

The first step in addressing this problem is understanding the answer to this basic question: Why are some people in encampments insisting on staying where they are?

Schools brace for surge in demand for mental health services as in-person classes resume

Lire cet article en français

From the Toronto Star article:

…Some schools are also being supported by external programs, like the Model Schools Pediatric Health Initiative run out of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and Unity Health, which serves over 50 inner city schools through clinics based in Sprucecourt Public School and Nelson Mandela Park Public School. Dr. Sloane Freeman, a pediatrician and lead of the clinics, said she anticipates “a storm of referrals” as schools reopen for in-school learning.

“It’s very difficult to identify kids’ needs virtually, whether it be educational needs, mental health needs or developmental health needs,” Freeman said, adding that features of ADHD and autism, for example, are much harder to pick up on through a screen.

Freeman said she anticipates some children returning to the classroom will display symptoms of anxiety and depressed moods, but also problems with emotional outbursts. “We’ve always seen challenges with kids’ self-regulation and having a hard time managing big emotions, and I think we’re going to see more of that.”

Les écoles se préparent à une hausse de la demande de services en santé mentale avec la reprise des cours en présentiel

Extrait de l’article du Toronto Star :

… Certaines écoles sont également soutenues par des programmes extérieurs, comme le Model Schools Pediatric Health Initiative de l’hôpital St. Michael de Toronto et Unity Health, qui dessert plus de 50 écoles du centre-ville avec ses cliniques établies dans les écoles publiques Sprucecourt et Nelson Mandela Park. La docteure Sloane Freeman, pédiatre et responsable des cliniques a déclaré qu’elle s’attendait à une « foule de demandes de consultation » avec la réouverture des cours en présentiel.

« Il est très difficile de définir les besoins des enfants de manière virtuelle, que ce soit en matière d’éducation, de santé mentale ou de santé développementale », a déclaré la Dre Freeman, ajoutant que les particularités du TDAH et de l’autisme, par exemple, sont beaucoup plus difficiles à déceler à travers un écran. La Dre Freeman a déclaré s’attendre à ce que certains enfants retournant en classe présentent des symptômes d’anxiété et d’humeur dépressive, mais aussi des problèmes de débordements émotionnels. « Les défis liés à l’autorégulation chez les enfants et à la difficulté de gérer les émotions fortes ont toujours été présents, et je pense que nous en verrons davantage. »

Opinion: We’re getting our kids ready for school. But are our schools ready for our kids?

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

By Sloane Freeman and Ripudaman Singh Minhas

When schools reopen in September, they will need to answer difficult questions in the face of ongoing challenges from COVID-19. And in doing so, they will also need to take into account that the pandemic affected school-aged children in different ways.

The duration of school closures varied across provinces and territories – Ontario, for instance, experienced the longest shutdown at 26 weeks. How will that varied length affect children in different areas? It is anticipated that Canadian students will return to school this fall with greater mental and physical health needs, as well as significant learning gaps – but children facing socioeconomic instability have been most affected. How will schools be equipped and resourced to support returning students’ additional needs? Similarly, will schools have the capacity to meet the learning needs of students who have fallen substantially behind?

‘We’re losing control’: Ultra-potent, unpredictable street opioids are claiming more lives in Canada

From the CTV News piece:

Canada’s street supply of opioids is becoming increasingly toxic, unpredictable and contaminated thanks to ultra-potent and deadly mixtures of fentanyl, prompting renewed calls for safe supply programs that could help regain control of the drug supply and save lives.

It’s believed pandemic border closures have played a role in disrupting the supply chain, prompting the creation of new, more lethal cocktails.

“We’re absolutely losing control of the drug supply, and it’s causing people to die,” Karen McDonald, lead of the Toronto drug-checking service operated by St. Michael’s Hospital, told CTV National News.

“Fentanyl can be used safely … but it can’t be used safely when you have no idea how much fentanyl is in it.”

Launched in 2019 in response to the growing opioid epidemic, Toronto’s anonymous drug-checking service offers drug users detailed information on the contents of their drugs in a bid to reduce overdoses.

How a new drug-checking kit could turn smartphones into overdose prevention tools

From the CBC Radio piece:

…A solution might come from Dr. Dan Werb, an epidemiologist and executive director of the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation in Toronto.

Over the last four years, he has been developing a cheaper, portable drug-testing device alongside Dr. Drew Hall, a colleague from the University of San Diego where Werb is an assistant professor.

“We’re academics, we’re scientists,” Werb told Day 6 host Brent Bambury, “I’m [not] a technologist, so I think we’re coming at this from a different angle.”

The device, called DoseCheck, is about the size of a smartphone, Bluetooth-enabled and made up of a circuit board, sensor and battery.

When voltage runs through the sensor, different drugs create peaks at different voltages. Each peak’s height signals the concentration of that drug within the sample. Sensors can be changed to detect new contaminants as they’re discovered in the drug supply.

That data is then sent to a smartphone app which performs the analysis and gives the user a breakdown of the drug.

In 2019, the device was announced as a finalist in Health Canada’s Drug Checking Technology Challenge, launched a year earlier to encourage innovations in harm reduction.

Werb said that drug-checking technologies aren’t widely available, and the machines that are remain pricy because of a lack of interest from companies.

“It’s a non-viable business model for major technology companies,” he said. “People who are structurally vulnerable and using drugs, and frontline harm-reduction workers, that’s not a huge market.”

Werb expects DoseCheck will retail between $300 and $350, a price he hopes will be friendlier to centres like VANDU who don’t receive federal funding for drug checking. It is expected to hit the market within the next year to 18 months.

He also hopes DoseCheck will extend access to drug testing into Canada’s more remote areas.