In November 2017, the FDA approved a digital pill for the first time. It is a medication embedded with a sensor that can inform doctors whether, and when, patients have taken their medicine.
In the New York Times’ report, this announcement marked a significant advance in the growing field of digital devices designed to monitor medicine-taking and to address the expensive, longstanding problem that millions of patients have of not taking their drugs as prescribed.
Experts estimate that non-compliance to medication costs about US$100 billion a year, mainly because patients get sicker and need additional treatment or hospitalisation.
Ameet Sarpatwari, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, said the digital pill “has the potential to improve public health,” especially for forgetful patients.
But, he added, “if used improperly, it could foster more mistrust instead of trust.”
Patients who agree to take the digital medication, a version of the antipsychotic Abilify, can sign consent forms allowing their doctors and up to four other people, including family members, to receive electronic data showing the date and time pills are ingested.
A smartphone app will let them block recipients anytime they change their mind. Although voluntary, questions about the issues of privacy and whether patients might feel pressure to take medication in a form their doctors can monitor.
Dr Peter Kramer, a psychiatrist and author of “Listening to Prozac,” was concerned that while it is ethical for “a fully competent patient who wants to lash him or herself to the mast,” he said, “‘digital drug’ sounds like a potentially coercive tool.”
Dr Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, said many psychiatrists would likely want to try digital Abilify.
He added, “There’s an irony in it being given to people with mental disorders that can include delusions. It’s like a biomedical Big Brother.”