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Digital Pill Not a Solution For Drug Abuse Treatment

Is there really a need for a pill with a sensor that will tell your doctor — and perhaps your partner or family members — that you have or have not taken your medication? Maybe. The FDA has approved such a “digital” pill version of the antipsychotic medication Abilify.

According to Newsweek, “Only about 30 percent of the pills prescribed in the United States are taken as they’re meant to be, and only 20 percent are refilled correctly.”And the American College of Preventive Medicine’s clinical reference guide adds, “patients with psychiatric disabilities are less likely to be compliant.” When psychiatric patients don’t take their drugs, they can have unpleasant side effects, including sometimes violence against themselves or others.

Also, patients who don’t take their pills as prescribed — and so get sicker or require additional treatment, maybe hospitalization — cost about $100 billion a year. The digital pill helps prevent this, but some doctors worry about the privacy implications.

It’s easy to imagine applications for substance abuse treatment, but it also is easy to realize the limits of the technology.

If patients are on medication-assisted treatment, such as methadone or buprenorphine (brand name Suboxone), the technology would confirm whether or not they have taken their meds, and presumably also when and how much. Any deviation from the prescribed schedule could be easily detected.

But if all pills don’t include the digital marker, it becomes useless. You could take as many non-digital pills in addition to your prescribed pills without Big Brother knowing. Even now dealers make their own pills — disguising fentanyl as another drug — and the technology to “print” your own pills already exists, and could become commonplace.

Even if the digital pill could monitor the total contents of the stomach, not all drugs go by way of the stomach. And privacy activists are concerned about someone besides your doctor “hacking” the info. if that is possible, hacking to change the data might be possible, too.

No, it seems the only use for this digital pill would be for someone who wants to and means to take their meds as prescribed, but sometimes forgets. Even then, a phone call reminding you that you forgot to take a pill is more than a little disconcerting. There are better solutions.