Digital Pills Signal A New Age Of Healthcare

A Truly Smart Pill To Swallow

We are a nation on medication. Data from the latest Health Survey for England indicates that in 2015/16, 48% of English adults had taken at least one prescribed medication in the past week. This is a trend seen elsewhere in the Western world, with an incredible 75% of all US visits to the doctor resulting in drug therapy in 2014.

Prescription medication is an essential part of treating illnesses – from minor afflictions to the most severe diseases. However, it is estimated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that around 50% of all patients with chronic conditions don’t take their medication properly. This results not only in huge costs to health services in wasted prescriptions, but it can seriously harm patients’ health. However, with the new technology of digital pills, this could all be about to change.

A sensor a day keeps the doctor away

Abilify is a drug by Otsuka Pharmaceutical that is used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. It has become the first ever pill to be approved in the US for use within a digital medicine system. In conjunction with Proteus Digital Health, Otsuka Pharmaceutical have developed Abilify MyCite: a version of the drug where individual tablets are fitted with ingestible electronic sensors.

The concept is simple, yet highly effective. When a person takes the Abilify MyCite pill, its electronic sensor relays a message to a wearable patch on the patient’s body. This patch then sends a message to an app on a smartphone that the drug has been taken and has reached its destination correctly. If patients have chosen to share this information, then it is also automatically sent to their doctor.

Not only does this system help individuals to keep track of their medication when self administering, but it also provides a host of useful data to healthcare professionals. With greater insight into the effectiveness of any particular drug on any particular patient, medical care teams can tailor treatment to the individual. More accurate diagnoses and more effective treatment plans will reduce costs for overstretched healthcare providers and improve outcomes for patients. It appears to be good news all round.

The wider implications of sharing medical data

As with the introduction of any new technology, digital pills come with potential risks. Within the domain of sensitive medical data, the most pressing of these is patient privacy.  For whilst we might want our medicine to remind us that we have forgotten to take it, it’s not clear that we would want to share our medical information with anyone else.  Pharmaceutical companies in particular could benefit from the advent of digital medication data, as it could help them to improve the effectiveness of any given drug. Although this outcome may seem to be largely positive, it would also turn its clients into participants in a never ending clinical trial.

Perhaps more worryingly, it is also possible to imagine situations where patients are monitored by their medicine without their consent. In the future, prisons or mental health institutions could conceivably force people to use this kind of observational technology. Interfering family members could access relatives’ confidential medical information, or employers check up on whether or not their workers are taking medication. Data leaks could easily turn our intimate medical histories into publicly available material.

Smart medicine is the future

One of the cheapest and most effective ways of fighting disease is to make sure patients follow their prescriptions. Although Abilify MyCite isn’t yet widely available, such digital pills which increase a patient’s adherence to treatment are just one step in a wider future for smart medication. Personalised medicine, particularly genomics, depends upon our improved understanding of the way individual people react to treatment programmes. Closely tracking the way that medicines are delivered and used by the body is an ideal way of achieving this. The use of technology such as digital pills won’t just help patients to deal with their illnesses on a day to day basis, but will therefore lead us into a brighter age of effective healthcare.

Would you be comfortable taking a digital pill? Are the privacy implications in smart medications a legitimate concern? What other ways could monitoring technology improve patient outcomes? Comment below with your thoughts.