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New Cyberpills Send Text Messages If You Forget To Take Them

Did you forget to take your medicine? If you’re using these new microchip-implanted pills, your phone will remind you—and your doctor. Helpful attention or Big Doctor breathing down your neck?

When you get old, you start having to take more and more pills. Sometimes some of the pills are pretty important and it would be bad if you forgot to take them one day. But people are busy, things slip their minds. Thankfully, an American company has found a way to embed inexpensive microchips in pills so that they can ping doctors if patients forget to take them.

Proteus BioMed’s chips, the futuristically named ingestible event monitors (IEMs), cost only a few cents each at scale. The chips are making their retail debut this September at U.K. chain LloydsPharmacy. Lloyds’s version of the product, called Helius, consists of pills, an adhesive sensor patch, and an integrated software/smartphone app package. Patients swallow the Helius pill—a harmless sugar pill with an IEM chip implanted inside—at the same time as their daily medications. Once the pill reaches the stomach, the embedded chip is activated by stomach acids and sends an ultra-low-power electrical signal to the patch. The sensor patch, in turn, records the date and time of ingestion, along with metrics—such as heart rate, activity, and respiratory rate—and sends an SMS text message to both patient and physician if the user forgets to take a pill. Users will also be able to run basic analytics on patient health care stats generated by the IEM chip through the smartphone app.

It is important to note that the Helius system, which costs approximately $80 per month, is not covered by Britain’s National Health Service. Instead, the product must be paid for by patients out of pocket. Lloyds, according to Financial Times, has exclusive U.K. rights to the product for the next three years.

Proteus and Lloyds’s promotional materials imply that the companies are currently interested in marketing the chip system to caregivers of patients who regularly forget to take their medication. According to Steve Gray of Lloyds, "There is a huge problem with medicines not being taken correctly. Anyone taking several medications knows how easy it can be to lose track of whether or not you’ve taken the correct tablets that day. Add to that complex health issues and families caring for loved ones who may not live with them and you can appreciate the benefits of an information service that helps patients get the most from their treatments and for families to help them remain well."

Proteus’s Mark Zdeblick says, "The IEM has two materials which, when they come in contact with stomach fluids, provide power to the IEM. The IEM varies the current flow between the two materials to generate a digital signal which can be detected […] The IEM contains no battery, antenna, or radio, but rather uses the body to power the device and to pass along the unique, pill-specific signal in a private manner that is far superior to complicated, expensive, and privacy-challenged approaches like RFID."

Proteus has also announced a partnership with Swiss pharmaceutical firm Novartis to develop a similar chip-based system to warn doctors if a patient forgets to take a pill; Novartis’s Joe Jimenez noted that the system boosted prescription compliance rates from 30% to 80% over six months for blood pressure medication Diovan. The firm is still going through the complicated process of bringing ingestible IEM chips to market in the United States, and secured patents for the device in July 2011.

There are also privacy issues. Although the IEM concept is too new to have generated specific fears and worries, Representatives Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA) have raised fears that voluntary security safeguards for wireless medical devices aren’t stringent enough. Markey and Eshoo note that the barriers towards, say, patients’ vital stats being published on social media sites or of hackers falsifying health stats on smartphones are relatively low.

Robert Charette of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) notes that chip-based compliance information could easily be made mandatory by insurers and that, due to the data being transmitted via SMS, could easily be added to a person’s electronic health record. This could cause significant privacy and financial concerns for individuals dealing with chronic health issues or mental illness.

Currently, patients not taking medication on time costs the American health system approximately $290 billion annually. That is major cash. When (and if) this technology is approved by the FDA stateside, insurers are likely to be very interested in widespread use to ensure compliance.