Bioethics Blogs

Digital Pills: High-Tech Medications with High-Stake Implications

Natalie Salmanowitz, SPINS fellow

In discussing the balance of power in doctor-patient relationships, we usually view doctors as having the upper hand. After all, they serve as gatekeepers to many medical treatments and record meticulous details of our personal lives. In a single appointment, doctors gather information ranging from our daily eating habits to our current stressors. Despite this skewed dynamic, the scale is not solely in the doctor’s favor. For instance, patients control the quantity and truth of their answers, and in most cases can choose whether to follow or reject a doctor’s prescribed course of treatment.

This last fact is often overlooked, but carries serious consequences for both individual patients and the healthcare system. Noncompliance can worsen a person’s existing condition while provoking additional illnesses. It can also lead doctors down rabbit holes in seeking solutions to ostensibly treatment-resistant problems. As far as the broader healthcare system is concerned, the waste of pills alone costs the United States up to $300 billion a year. 

A new invention might break this trend. “Digital pills” track ingestion through small sensors, which transmit information to a patch on the patient’s skin. This patch in turn sends confirmation of compliance to the patient’s smartphone, in addition to other metrics such as heart rate and the number of steps walked that day. Patients can then grant their doctor or caretaker access to this data. Although not yet clinically available, digital pills could soon become a reality. In a joint effort, Proteus Digital Health and Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company created a digital antipsychotic drug, which the FDA just recently agreed to review.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.