Pros and cons of the new digital pills that connect to your smartphone

Biomedical Big Brother is approved.
Biomedical Big Brother is approved.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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The health-care community lit up in conversation after news broke that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the world’s first digital drug.

It’s a pill that contains a minuscule chip—made of magnesium, silicon, and copper—that can send information from inside the body to an adhesive patch that’s placed on a patient’s torso. The patch can send data to a doctor’s office, as well as to a special smartphone app for those who wish to monitor themselves, until the chip is naturally digested.

The invention comes out of Japan, put together by Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co. with the help of Silicon Valley’s Proteus Digital Health Inc. In the short term, it’s being paired with Abilify, a drug used to treat bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses. The approach could usher in a new era of drug monitoring that gives doctors, patients, and caregivers an extra layer of knowledge about how prescribed medication is being used.

Ingestible medical devices are not new. Doctors have used technology such as capsules to take photos from inside the body. What’s interesting about the digital pill is that it’s the first time this kind of monitoring device has been attached to a drug. And as with most technological steps forward, it also raises questions about privacy, bioethics, and the use of big data from inside your body.

The Biggest Pro

The single biggest boon is the ability to track drug use. In cases where it’s vital ifor patients to take a medication on a regular schedule, a digital pill would allow a physician to be alerted to a missed dose.

People often don’t take their medications as prescribed. The problem is so pervasive that experts estimate that such behavior winds up costing about $100 billion per year because paitients end up getting sicker and then need more treatment or require hospitalization, according to The New York Times (paywall).

There is some hope that the technology may have a possible—albeit small—role in addressing the opioid crisis. Patients prescribed opioid medication following surgery could be monitored to ensure they use them correctly, to head off dependence.

The Biggest Con

The dark side of more tracking is that a patient would be giving up a further degree of privacy. Do we really want to invite Biomedical Big Brother into the long-protected confidential relationship between doctor and patient? Patients who use the digital drug would sign a consent form, yet the technology still creates the impression that the patient is being watched by a third party.

That problem can cut two ways. Some might find the idea of being watched too uncomfortable to consent. For others, it might create another layer between them and actual time with a physician. If a digestible chip can send the necessary information to a doctor’s office, perhaps there might be less need for home-visit nurses—interactions that can be very useful on their own, health professionals say.

Then, of course, there is the issue of where all this trackable data is going to be stored. In an age when credit agencies such as Equifax fall victim to massive data hacks, consumer confidence in a corporation’s ability to secure data is low.

The technology, only being used in the drug Abilify for now, is expected to be adopted more broadly to help treat other conditions in which routine drug intake is necessary.