Doctors prescribing medications have lots to think about, be it the dosage that the person will receive, whether its counter indicated with some other drug that they are taking, side effects the patient might suffer as well as dozens of other considerations that they may have before they take out their prescription pad. You would assume that if they get all of this right that that’s where the story ends. The medication does its job, the patient gets better etc, but the reality is there’s one factor that no medical professional can keep track of all the time; whether or not you are actually taking your pills properly.
In recent weeks the United States has declared the opioid situation a national emergency as they have record numbers of people addicted to pain killers, opium substitutes and more, and much of this stems from the patient themselves. We’d all like to buy into the stereo type that doctors are prescription happy and make tonnes of money by dishing out scripts for the most popular and well funded medications, but the truth is that whether your GP or surgeon gives you the right thing or not, the dangers of becoming addicted to a pain killer post surgery or accident are huge and this is a problem. If there was a way to track when and how people were taking these drugs we could potentially tackle at the very least a percentage of this problem.
Another issue that doctors face is people not taking the medication in the first place. Whether it’s because they forget, or take it at the wrong time and decide to double up on pills to ‘make up for missing a dose’ or perhaps the patient is elderly and needs reminding when and how to take their prescription, there are numerous reasons why drugs can be misused even by the most conscientious and law abiding among us. Doctors simply can’t be expected to baby sit us and check that we’ve followed the instructions correctly. On a side note, it’s amazing the number of doctors still get the blame for patient error and a system of accountability on the client side would be beneficial for the doctor too.
Enter the digital pill. Like something out of science fiction, this new smart pill has the ability to send some limited data to a senor which can be used for a wide range of uses. The FDA in the US has just announced that they have approved the use of this new type of pill, and, although it’s only available as one particular medication at the moment, has the potential to change the way we consume and interact with our daily prescriptions.
The idea is fairly straightforward. You take the pill as normal, and as the capsule travels through your body it eventually reaches the stomach. Once there the acids in you start to break down the pill, again the same as any other medication, but this smart capsule has a silicon, copper sensor that sends a signal to an accompanying device to alert that it has reached the destination and is starting to distribute its contents throughout the body.
The idea of something like this isn’t completely new. There have been smart scopes and sensors that travel through the body before and send back information and pictures depending on where they are, but in this case it’s smaller and with a singular purpose. The ‘sensor’ has been tested and doesn’t interfere with the body functions or the effectiveness of the drug, effectively it is just a tiny chemical reaction that sends an electrical signal to a patch device you wear on you to signal when the pill has started to break down.
This data can then be sent to an accompanying smart phone app, and the patient can, at that point, add additional information such as their mood or notes on the drug. So there’s still a level of patient interaction required, but again this is early days for this technology, but given the costs of non-adherence to medications usage in terms of doctors, hospital visits etc, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
One major concern that has been brought up is that of privacy. Given that this data can be potentially shared with your GP or surgeon, will this lead to a situation when medical companies or private hospitals will even have access the the history of the medications you have taken? This is a good question and gets me to thinking about the fact that every visit to a hospital involves a detailed medical history being taken, so I can definitely see the benefit of an app having the history of your prescriptions and usage available for the patients and doctors benefit, but will it end there or will drug companies start to target people and doctors with new products based on their usage and prescribing patterns?
Worse than that, could we ever get into a situation where more data is transferred from these pills giving your insurer or employer information about your health and potential health issues? Without meaning to sound paranoid, forget getting inside your head, could Big Brother get inside your blood stream?
As with all new technologies there is potential for abuse and privacy concerns and there will be people who are willing to make a trade-off for an improved quality of life. At the same time there will be those who do not want their medical data being stored on a cloud somewhere or accessible through some database in a medical company. The issue is though, for certain drugs, you may not have the option. In 5 years time you may be given the option of a drug which is tracked or no prescription at all.
While I can definitely see the up sides here, for example an elderly person who needs to keep track of medication, or even for everyday users to ensure compliance to the proper usage, there is definitely a feeling of unease I get when I think that a court could one day check up on whether a criminal for example is taking their medication and make decisions based on this, or an employer disqualify a candidate because they potentially have a heart condition. For now a reminder in my phone and following the instructions will have to suffice.