British Columbia

Vancouver's Mobile Medical Unit sees more than 600 patients in first month

The Mobile Medical Unit (MMU) stationed in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside saw 613 patients in its first month of operation; fewer than half of those visits were for overdoses.

Only 43% of those were for 'overdose presentation,' says Vancouver Coastal Health

The inside of the overdose treatment facility set up in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The Mobile Medical Unit (MMU) stationed in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside saw 613 patients in its first month of operation, but fewer than half of those visits were for overdoses. 

The unit, essentially a "satellite emergency department," was set up in December at 58 West Hastings St. — ground zero for the city's opioid crisis — as an alternative place to take overdose victims.

Before that, paramedics had to transport anyone who was overdosing to St. Paul's Hospital, which officials said was overwhelmed.

The Mobile Medical Unit treats people who are overdosing and helps drug users get into addiction treatment programs. (Stephanie Mercier/CBC)

Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) says in the first 30 days it was operational (from Dec. 13, 2016 to Jan. 13, 2017), the unit saw an average of 20 patients per day. 

VCH says only 43 per cent of those visits were from people who "had overdose presentations."

The other visits included requests for methadone or Suboxone, both drugs that treat opioid addiction, or for a naloxone kit. 

The facility is staffed 18 hours a day by an emergency physician, an emergency nurse and an addictions physician.

VCH says 121 patients have been successfully contacted by outreach nurses since visiting the MMU, 39 of them are now on opioid replacement therapies. 

Helping a 'captured audience'

Ann Livingston, who helps run a pop-up injection site up the street, says she's heard the same-day treatment offered by the MMU is helping.  

Ann Livingston helps run the pop-up injection site on Hastings Street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. She is also the co-founder of the Overdose Prevention Society. (Stephanie Mercier/CBC)

"They said they're being quite, not aggressive, but you know, 'What are you going to do? These are your other options.' Because they have made a few more options available and they're willing to do the outreach," she said. 

"They're trying to take a sort of captured audience of someone who may be thinking, 'Wow that was close, maybe I better not do that again,' and then offer them those treatments."

Livingston believes getting users off street drugs, which are often laced with fentanyl or carfentanil, is one of the important next steps in moving forward from B.C.'s opioid crisis, which left 914 people dead in 2016.