Medication Adherence Tools: Technology Helping You Remember Meds

By Scott Jung, iQ Contributor & Senior Editor at MedGadget @Medgadget January 15, 2014

Have you ever stopped taking your medication early without your doctor’s knowledge because you felt better? Ever looked at the co-pay for a doctor’s prescription and decided to try less expensive alternatives? Have you ever just plain forgot to take a dose? Intentional or not, you’re part of 50 percent of Americans who are estimated to be non-adherent to their medication.

Medication non-adherence is a big problem in the United States. One study found that the risk of hospitalization is twice as high in chronically ill people who do not follow a prescribed medication plan, compared to chronically ill people who do. Patients aren’t the only ones feeling the effects, though; the economy also suffers from poorer health. According to the New England Healthcare Institute, non-adherence leads to around $300 billion in wasteful spending each year in our healthcare system. Needless to say, not taking your medication leads to poorer health for everyone.

Because medication compliance is a multifaceted issue with psychological and economic factors that involve not only patients, but also healthcare providers and even the government, there’s not a single remedy that can entirely fix this disorder. However, new technologies are being developed and implemented that address many of the reasons for medication non-adherence and help patients stay on a prescribed medication plan.

One major issue is a lack of communication from pharmacists and doctors. Companies like RxAnte and Allazo Health are using sophisticated computer programs to look through patient data and predict medication non-adherence. From there, insurance companies and pharmacists can focus their resources on those patients who need help the most.

What about patients who understand the importance of their medication, but simply forget to take it? Thanks to advancements in smartphones and Internet technology, you no longer have to rely on those plastic pill organizers. If you use a smartphone, there’s an app for that!

Apps such as DoseCast and MedCoach let you input your medication plan into your phone and then remind you to take your dose. They can also log your progress and send important information to a caretaker or doctor. If you find your pillbox too confusing, companies such as Abiogenix and AdhereTech have developed smart medication dispensers and apps that help you know what medicine to take and when. Abiogenix’s uBox stores two weeks worth of medication in secured compartments and unlocks each compartment only at a prescribed time, accompanied by flashing lights, beeps, and smartphone notifications to you and/or a caretaker. AdhereTech’s pill bottle is similar, but also works with liquid medication and has cellular antenna built in so it can be used anywhere. Neither of these products is foolproof, but they’re helpful for those with extremely busy schedules or who suffer from memory impairments.

If the thought of a phone call or visit from a very concerned spouse or caretaker isn’t enough motivation to keep you from forgetting, companies such as Mango Health and HealthPrize are using incentives to get people to take their medication. Patients who stay on schedule and get refills as instructed earn points that can be used toward gift cards and other prizes.

Microelectronics could be a major catalyst for improving medication adherence. California-based Proteus Digital Health has developed a system called Helius that uses not pill bottles, but pills themselves to track medication intake. They’re ordinary pills, but they contain a tiny, ingestible sensor that is detected by a special skin patch when it reaches the stomach and records the exact time of ingestion, as well as the unique ID of the medication. The skin patch can also record your body temperature, heart rate, and activity, which can help in assessing whether or not a medication is working. Also in California, Ellis Meng, a biomedical engineering professor at USC, is developing a tiny, implantable and refillable drug pump that automatically delivers medication directly to the eye. The pump, called FluidSync, is still in very early testing stages, so it’ll likely be a long time before we’re able to automatically have statins injected into our bloodstream. But if FluidSync is successful, it could be the first step toward more automated and targeted medications.

Over at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, many of these technologies are already being put to the test. A group of cancer patients were recently prescribed a treatment plan involving oral chemotherapy. They were sent home with more that just pills, however. They also received a smartphone app that will remind them to take their pills. More than just an alarm, the app contains interactive educational features and support and connects with a medication-tracking device that will provide additional feedback and on their symptoms and further encourage medication adherence.

With the advances in modern technology and the brainpower of the researchers behind it, this issue could certainly be a thing of the past in our foreseeable future.

Ever since he had an atresia surgically repaired at age five, Scott has been fascinated with the field of medical science. Combining his love of consumer electronics and technology with medicine, he studied biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California and graduated in 2009. By day, Scott is a Technical Services Engineer at St. Jude Medical, but moonlights as a senior editor at Medgadget, a leading medical technology and innovation blog. Scott is always searching for the next big thing in medical technology and digital health and looks forward to sharing these life-transforming innovations with iQ by Intel’s audience.