“Smart Pills” and Newer Technologies in Healthcare

October 1, 2014 - Technology is changing almost every aspect of our lives and this is no more apparent than in healthcare. Three recent and rapidly advancing technologies are wonderful examples of what is happening now. The future is here, just not evenly distributed, as we still hold onto some older and less effective methodologies.

“Smart Pills,” which can sense when they are ingested, have been developed recently and are now being tested. Small video cameras, which are swallowed, can view the insides of our digestive tracts. Wristwatch-like devices can record our physical activity, heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen concentration, sleep efficiency, and many more physiological parameters.

1. SMART PILLS. They contain a computer chip roughly the size of a grain of sand that is activated when the pill comes in contact with stomach acid. One side of the chip is copper and the other magnesium. When actuated, the chip sends a unique coded signal to a special Band-Aid like strip which the person wears under his or her normal clothing. The signal is then passed on to a smart phone or tablet and can be transmitted to appropriate monitoring facilities.

This pill, imbedded with a monitoring device, will help with compliance. Estimates are that up to 50% of prescribed medications are never taken. Patients get confused or just not disciplined and this wireless, almost undetectable technology could be a contemporaneous reminder to take your medicine. Treatment failures may be related to non-compliance rather than ineffectiveness would thus be eliminated.

2. TINY VIDEO CAMERA. Capsule-like in size and shape, they have been used for some time to photograph the inside of the small intestines, which are difficult to visualize using more conventional upper or lower gastrointestinal endoscopy. According to a Mayo Clinic publication, “Capsule endoscopy is a procedure that uses a tiny wireless camera to take pictures of your digestive tract. The camera sits inside a vitamin-sized capsule that you swallow. As the capsule travels through your digestive tract, the camera takes thousands of pictures that are transmitted to a recorder you wear on a belt around your waist or over your shoulder. Capsule endoscopy helps doctors see inside your small intestine — an area that isn't easily reached with conventional endoscopy. Capsule endoscopy can be used by adults and by children who can swallow the capsule.”

3. WRISTWATCH-SIZE DEVICE FOR REMOTE MONITORING. This has been available for some time but now will probably become more ubiquitous. Astronauts were monitored in outer space decades ago. Think how far we have come since the Mercury project’s Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961. Dr. Eric Topol’s “Creative Destruction of Medicine,” reviews many new technologies which fit hand-in-glove with hand held devices. A moderately inexpensive device can be attached to an iPhone which records a person’s heart rhythm. Other similarly affordable devices can measure blood sugar, cholesterol, and many other blood chemistries, thus giving early warnings for impending problems.

Blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and oxygen concentration can also be monitored and shared as appropriate with the patient him/herself or a caregiver or both. Early detection and quick correction can save a great deal of suffering and subsequent illness.

We are just at the beginning of harnessing technology to benefit our health. The rate of change is accelerating so dramatically that the traditional office visit will be viewed nostalgically as an anachronism by the next generation … maybe even sooner. As we shared at the beginning of this explanation, the future is here … and we’ll all benefit.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.