September 09, 2016

Many people treat “doctor’s orders” like “doctor’s suggestions”. They often don’t take their medications, or do the things that doctors tell them to do.

And chronic health conditions in the U.S. are cresting like a slow-moving wave. In 2012, half of all adults in the U.S. had at least one chronic health condition. One in four adults had at least two chronic conditions. But over 50% of prescribed medicine for chronic disease aren’t taken as directed.

“When patients are prescribed medicines, most of them don’t use them, or don’t use them properly,” explains Andrew Thompson, CEO of Proteus Digital Health. “As a result, we spend a lot of money on drugs that don’t deliver value, and we have enormous health system costs.”

The reasons patients don’t stick to their medical regimen range from financial constraints to a misunderstanding of how drugs work. But Thompson thinks that the solution lies in tracking whether or not patients take their medicine. And he and a couple competitors are working on a high-tech solution.

His company created a “digital pill” that alerts health care providers whenever a patient takes her medicine. Once the pill hits stomach acid, it emits a tiny electrical signal that goes straight to a sensor patch -- which looks a little like a band-aid -- on your skin. That patch sends the info to your doctor, family members, or anyone you’ve given permission to track your drug intake.

Thompson envisions many uses for that data. “It might be very helpful, especially if [older patients] can engage a younger family member in managing their drugs,” he says.

He thinks it could also be used to track medical adherence for diseases like Hepatitis C, which is easily cured by a strict regimen of drugs. But sticking to those drugs is essential.

“By far the most health care work in the United States is done by patients and their families,” Thompson says. And by helping families track when medicine is taken, and how, Thompson thinks he can improve medical adherence in chronic conditions.

Still, digital medicine is in its early days.

The FDA denied Proteus Digital Health’s petition to put sensors in Abilify, a drug that’s prescribed to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

And, in some sense, the idea of swallowing little computers seems a little far-fetched. But consider this: if you had told someone in 1980 that they’d soon be walking around with tiny supercomputers in their pockets, they’d probably find that a little far-fetched, too.

Body and Mind, Andrew Thompson, science and tech

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