“Digital Pills” Could Help Senior Care With More Than Just Meds

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Technology has already made waves in senior care through the use smart-sensor systems that can monitor residents’ movements, nearly eliminating the need for a room-by-room check each morning.

Eight in ten assisted living residents need help managing their medications, according to the National Center for Assisted Living, and medication administration is positioned to be the next target for time saving efficiency through a new technology coming to market: digital pills. But that’s not all they can do.


Imagine a typical day in a senior care setting. Caregivers visit the rooms of all residents who receive medications. They administer the meds, then wait several minutes for each resident to take them, one by one, ensuring the doses are not forgotten or lost.

But what if the caregiver simply left the daily dose and continued along to the next resident, not having to worry about waiting for each person to swallow each pill?

Enter: digital pills. The creation was launched by Proteus Digital Health and received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in July 2012. The technology is now being marketed for at-home use in England and will be landing in U.S. hospitals later this year, which could have vast implications for senior care.


“Our digital health feedback system is designed to help people better manage their care each and every day,” says David O’Reilly, chief product officer. “Whether it’s nudges to help people stay on track with their routine or better informed caregivers and clinicians, the system will provide significant benefit to those who are experiencing lifestyle changes as a result of aging.”

The digital pill works as part of a platform to track and monitor a user’s intake of medicines as well as vital signs and movement. On average, older adults use five to six prescription medications, according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine. The digital pill has the capability of being incorporated into pharmaceuticals themselves, or being taken as a placebo pill along with medicines.

Once digestion begins, the pill—which contains a digital sensor about the size of a grain of sand—goes to work. It transmits data through a wearable patch, via bluetooth directly to a family member’s or caregiver’s cell phone or computer, letting that person know the medicine has been administered, whether the person is up and about, and even health signals.

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The whole transmission can be complete within 10 minutes of the pill being taken.

In addition to monitoring medications, the ingestible sensor also is capable of tracking heart rate, body position and activity.

Particularly in cases where the person receiving the medicines is homebound, or is receiving care in a community setting, this may be useful as a way to keep track of many different people all at the same time and without having to perform physical checks as to whether a person has swallowed his or her pills.

It’s currently being packaged and sold through some drug stores in England, at a monthly subscription rate of 60 pounds ($90US).

While it has many caregiving applications, Proteus says, it’s particularly geared toward older people who may suffer from memory impairment or other causes which lead them to forget to take their medicines.

“We’ve observed that as people age, families often devolve into constant worry. Phone calls focus only on whether medications have been taken or if mom is up and about,” O’Reilly says. “With our technology, loved ones will already be reassured about the routine and those conversations will shift back to topics that really matter. Those aging will maintain their independence, families will be reassured, and most importantly relationships will be strengthened.”

It will begin testing in hospitals and other institutional care settings in the coming months within the United States, with a particular eye toward hospital readmissions, an important goal for many senior care providers in line with regulatory changes around hospital care versus other forms of care.

Proteus sees the potential for a paradigm shift as the technology is adopted.

“Our digital health feedback system provides caregivers with a view into their loved ones’ activity and rest patterns as well as their medication taking,” O’Reilly says. “Having this information at your fingertips will change the paradigm for caregiving.”

Written by Elizabeth Ecker