Will the digital pill revolutionise healthcare?

21 : 11 : 2017 Health : Wellness : Digital
Care/of, US Care/of, US

Advocates of Abilify MyCite argue that it will help to reduce the burden on overstretched healthcare systems, including in the US, where patients not taking their medicine costs the system £75bn ($100bn, €85bn) a year.

Rhiannon McGregor, junior journalist, LS:N Global

Last week the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a version of the anti-psychotic drug aripiprazole that contains an ingestible sensor. While Abilify MyCite is not the first ingestible digital pill – BodyCap launched the e-Celsius Performance pill, which sends athletic performance data in real time to an external monitor, in 2016 – the FDA approval points to a future in which digital pills are an integral part of the healthcare system. The pill, developed by Japanese pharmaceutical company Otsuka and digital medicine service Proteus Digital Health, works by sending a signal to an adhesive patch attached to the patient’s torso when it comes into contact with stomach acid. The patch records the dosage and the time of ingestion, enabling a physician to identify whether a patient has taken their medicine.

Given that conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can cause sufferers to become confused and forgetful, advocates of Abilify MyCite argue that it will help to reduce the burden on overstretched healthcare systems, including in the US, where experts estimate that patients not taking their medicine costs the system £75bn ($100bn, €85bn) a year in additional treatment and hospitalisation.

However, the approval of the pill has sparked privacy concerns because it also tracks patients’ activity levels, sleep patterns, heart rate and steps. But is this not exactly what fitness trackers and smartphone health apps are already recording? Consumers are clearly willing to share their personal data in exchange for services that improve their health and wellbeing, with shipments of fitness trackers and smartwatches in the fourth quarter of 2016 up by almost 17%, compared to the same period in 2015.

The approval of the pill has sparked privacy concerns because it also tracks patients’ activity levels, sleep patterns, heart rate and steps.

At LS:N Global we began charting the rise of app-based treatments earlier this year. While these brands differ from Abilify MyCite, offering digital alternatives to over-the-counter medication rather than combining the two, trust is an integral part of both contexts. As of October 2017, more than 500,000 consumers had willingly entered their data into smartphone app Natural Cycles, the first FDA-approved digital contraception. It seems logical that Otsuka’s digital pill will be similarly embraced.

But there are significant ethical and privacy concerns to address, especially when considering the fact that the tracking pill is aimed at people who may suffer from hallucinations or delusions, and could potentially cause feelings of paranoia or exacerbate their symptoms. ‘There is an irony in it being given to people with mental disorders than can include delusions,’ Dr Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University, told The Times. ‘It’s like a biomedical Big Brother.’

No one wants to live in a Big Brother-controlled world, but as John Kane, senior vice-president of behavioural health services at Northwell explains, the information recorded by systems such as Abilify MyCite can prove extremely beneficial in helping to initiate a dialogue between doctors and patients suffering from mental disorders.

Read our Healthcare Market for more on how brands are moving the healthcare experience away from traditional clinical environments.