Smart pill kicks off a new era of digital medicine

Published on October 4, 2018

A groundbreaking piece of technology will soon be available to patients, and along with it come patient privacy concerns that Hushmail will be watching closely. 

Abilify MyCite (aripiprazole), a medication approved for the treatment of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression, is the first FDA-approved medication to come equipped with a sensor that records the date and time the patient ingests the pill.

The sensor is the size of a grain of sand and made of ingestible components. When it comes in contact with stomach fluid, it sends a signal to a patch worn by the patient. The patch transfers the data to the Abilify MyCite app on the patient’s mobile device, and with signed consent, the patient’s practitioner can access the data on an accompanying dashboard and track the patient’s progress. 

The pill could go a long way toward addressing the issue of medication non-compliance and the resulting healthcare costs that are estimated to be well into the billions. Other benefits include improved record keeping; the ability to better track the effectiveness of medications and monitor side effects; and a greater ability to personalize treatment. Imagine taking a pill that tailors the dosage according to what your body needs that day.

Abilify MyCite is just the beginning. As digital pill technology continues to develop, so do the potential benefits and problems, including privacy issues and adverse effects on how we handle patient-centered care. 

Securing pill-gathered data

One glaring question is how to secure electronic protected health information (ePHI) transmitted from the stomach. Whether data is collected during digestion or through a traditional keyboard shouldn’t matter so much as the route it takes from patient to practitioner. Information transferred in real time opens up exciting possibilities for practitioners, but for hackers as well. 

Proteus Digital Health, the manufacturer of the sensor and patch, is insistent on its adherence to HIPAA regulations and its own high patient privacy standards. However, the effectiveness of the security measures remains to be seen in this still unchartered territory. Possible gaps range from unknown problems in a communication device that functions through contact with a bodily fluid to the ability or inability to patch a pill.

How will a digital pill affect the patient-practitioner relationship?

Another concern is that digital data communicated in real time will partially replace one-on-one sessions spent monitoring a patient’s progress. Knowing a patient’s medication compliance is only a small part of a face-to-face meeting. And yet, as practitioners struggle with heavy patient loads, it might be tempting to decrease face time and rely more on data gathered by a pill. 

However, the other side of this issue is the possible benefit of digital pills freeing up large portions of this valuable face time, prompting conversation that’s deeper and more elucidating than attempting to uncover medication compliance. 

Balancing technology with patient-centered care

As a provider of secure communication tools for healthcare, Hushmail is always seeking to balance the demands of technology with the more subtle requirements of patient-centered care. Consider Hush Secure Forms, for example. The secure web forms are easy to build and publish for the practitioner, simple to fill out for the patient, and more convenient than paper forms for both. Information sent through a form might range from contact and insurance information to assessments that help determine risk factors. In either case, the web form serves as a conversation starter between patient and practitioner. What the web form does not do is take the place of the patient-practitioner relationship. 

Like web forms, digital pills could serve as straightforward information collectors, convenient tools that free up time for busy practitioners and make medication adherence easier for patients, much the way glucose monitors have been doing for years. Digital pills also further open the door to the possibilities of AI-supported medicine and all of the associated benefits and problems.

As each new development spurs the next one, the tech industry and healthcare community, including regulators, payers, practitioners, and patients, will all have to work together to balance advancements in medicine with security measures and dedication to patient-centered care. When this balance is achieved, the healthcare achievements we might see in the upcoming decade are compelling indeed.