The first medical pills date from the ancient Egyptians and, apart from the ingredients, not much has changed ever since: you just swallow them and hopefully they're good for what ails you. But now revolutionary tech-enabled pills are helping doctors and patients in new ways.
One of the biggest problems for traditional pills is something call adherence: that is, how often patients actually take the medication in the way the doctor advised. It's thought that levels of adherence may be around 50%: in other words, around half of patients take the medication at the wrong time, or wrong dose, or don't take it all.
There are many good reasons why that might be the case – people might have problems with remembering when to take medicine or they might not be able to open the packaging, for example – but if you want to get the best effect from a medicine, it's better to take it as prescribed.
A new generation of tech-enabled pills is aiming to help measure adherence in people taking medicines regularly. When the patient swallows the pill and it hits their stomach, the acid environment activates the pill's onboard sensor. The pill then signals to a wearable patch or lanyard that the medication has been taken.
The first sensor-packing pill to be approved was Ablify Mycite, which contains aripiprazole, a medicine for psychiatric conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Mental health conditions like these can make it difficult to keep on top of taking medications regularly and the consequences of missing doses can be serious. When Ablify Mycite is swallowed, the pill's sensor communicates that status via Bluetooth to a chest-worn patch, which then lets a smartphone app know the pill was taken. The system can also be used to record other factors, such as the user's activity and rest times. Data gathered by the system can be for the user's own information, or shared with their doctor or caregivers such as family or friends. While Ablify Mycite is the best known use of digital pills for tracking medication adherence, other companies are experimenting with their use in other patient populations.
There are challenges to digital pills, however: they cost far more than their non-tech-enabled counterparts, and there are questions over whether they actually improve adherence rather than just monitoring.