Swallow This and Be Fully Compliant


The future of healthcare

I like the fact that technological innovations have made our lives pretty darn comfortable. It’s incredible to remember that when I was growing up, we had to wait until Monday for the bank to be open to get cash, dentistry was a lot more painful, and road trips to visit grandma through the Arizona desert —- well forget AC and back seat DVD players. We played a lot of car bingo back then.

But there comes a point when technology ceases to be the right answer. When I think of how much our lives have changed in just the last 20 years or so — before everyone had a computer, a microwave and a cell phone — I find it hard to imagine what the world will be like if we continue this fervent pace of so-called progress. Compared to years ago, how little we now rely on personal effort, elbow grease, hard work and responsibility. I worry about the lives my kids and grand kids face.  (Do I sound old yet?)

Every day a new invention comes down that will revolutionize our lives, it would be easy to comment every day about some bizarre trend. But this one is one of those “you’ve got to be kidding me” ideas that has to create more issues than it solves. Medication that can tell your doctor when it hasn’t been taken:

Patients are pretty horrible at taking their medicine. One study last month found that non-compliance with heart disease medications is responsible for about 113,000 deaths annually.

That’s makes this new development especially interesting: California-based Proteus Health Care is at work building tiny, embeddable digestible chips that would be able to tell doctors’ when a patient has swallowed it:

The swallowed sensor is linked to a skin patch worn on the patient’s torso, which captures the report sent by the sensor. About the size of a grain of salt, the sensor has no battery or antenna and is activated when it gets wet from stomach juices.

The skin patch records the digital message, along with the patient’s heart rate, body angle and activity, and sends the data to a bluetooth-enabled device such as a phone or computer.

Doctors would then be able to follow up with non-compliant patients.

The Gates Foundation is now funding a study that uses the swallowed sensor to monitor tuberculosis patients in China, who need to adhere to a strict antibiotic regimen. The idea of monitoring medical compliance speaks to some larger trends in health care. You’re seeing a lot more real-time and remote monitoring of patients everywhere from the homes of the elderly to corporate wellness initiatives, where pedometers can track how far each employee walks. They might mean we’re getting healthier, and also that our health insurers, doctors and employers know a whole lot more about us.

In the world of Obamacare, I suppose this is a way to alleviate doctor shortages, and there’s probably little difference between having a relationship with a computer vs a government bureaucrat. Wait, I take that back, computers are smarter and more sensitive, and don’t need a lifetime pension.

And it makes perfect sense that the technology is being tested in China. But of course — for so many reasons.

As for that last sentence: “They might mean we’re getting healthier, and also that our health insurers, doctors and employers know a whole lot more about us.”  Well, yes.  Yes, indeedy.


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6 Comments on “Swallow This and Be Fully Compliant”

  1. John Boddie Says:

    Sara –

    I actually worked on this stuff for a while, but it was in the form of blister packs that could detect that a pill capsule was opened. The logic is this – if a patient is taking psychotropic medication, the primary danger to both the patient and to society at large is that he or she does not follow the prescribed protocol for taking it. Reactions can be severe and can pose a danger to both the patient and the public. It’s far less expensive to have a means for tracking the patient’s behavior in terms of taking the medication than it is to clean up the mess later (assuming that the mess can be cleaned up).

    The insurers and doctors already know about the medication (and in the case of doctors and pharmacists that’s a good thing). Employers know less because of HIPPA regulations.

    On balance, I’d vote for progress in this instance.



    • Sara Says:

      That’s the rub isn’t it? Nearly all of these “solutions” are beneficial for targeted populations — it’s the extrapolation into the larger public that worries.



      • John Boddie Says:

        What’s the extrapolation you’re concerned with? Aspirin?



        • Sara Says:


          Go ahead and take your pill.

          It’s a metaphor.

          Micro-chipping. Eye scans. Cameras on every street corner. Drones to ostensibly just fight terrorists.



          • John Boddie Says:

            It may be a lot of things (for instance, it could be an example), but it’s not a metaphor.


          • Sara Says:

            The red pill or the blue pill, the choice between the blissful ignorance of illusion (blue) and the sometimes painful truth of reality (red).

            That’s a metaphor. You can call it an example, if you like though. Assuming you already took the blue pill.


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