Can't be bothered to remember if you took your meds this morning? Soon you won't have to. The US FDA has approved a line of ingestible microchips which, when embedded in a pill, tell you and your doctor whether you're taking your medications as prescribed. Is it futuristic? Yes. Useful? Tremendously. Creepy? Kind of, yeah.
People lie. They also misremember and forget. So when a doctor asks a patient if they've been taking their medications, it's with the understanding that the answer they receive might not be totally accurate.
From the standpoint of a practitioner, this sucks. Diagnoses, treatments, and yes, even other prescriptions, are based on weighing patient feedback against their apparent progress (or lack thereof) over time; inaccurate or incomplete accounts of a patient's medication regimen complicate things, sometimes with nasty and otherwise avoidable outcomes.
But what if doctors could know exactly what medications their patients were taking? Even better, what if they could monitor their doses, and administration times? Enter Proteus Biomedical, the company behind what's likely to become the world's first smart pill. By embedding Proteus' digestible microchips in a variety of drugs, pharmaceutical companies could soon provide doctors with a remarkably useful medical screening tool: the ability to monitor their patients' drug intake.
"About half of all people don't take medications like they're supposed to," says Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, in an interview with Nature News' Amy Maxmen. "This device could be a solution to that problem, so that doctors can know when to rev up a patient's medication adherence."
The sand-particle sized sensor consists of a minute silicon chip containing trace amounts of magnesium and copper. When swallowed, it generates a slight voltage in response to digestive juices, which conveys a signal to the surface of a person's skin where a patch then relays the information to a mobile phone belonging to a healthcare-provider.
Digitized patient information could also be automatically integrated into electronic medical records, or stored on the patient's own mobile device.
Of course, such a level of surveillance doesn't come without a certain degree of creepiness. Topol, for example, likens the system to "big brother watching you take your medicine." Does this constitute an invasion of privacy? Probably not, since anybody using smart pills to monitor their prescription use would have to do so voluntarily. After all, you still need to wear a monitoring patch to relay information from your body to whatever digital devices you're sending information to.