New ways to make you take your meds

We could save $290 billion a year by improving drug compliance, and new technologies are ready to do it for us.

Want to know how compliance is like insulation?

They're both low-hanging fruit.

The easiest solution to your personal energy crisis is insulation. You save money, we save energy, and it adds up faster than a windmill or solar panel.

The same is true with compliance. The New England Health Institute, which aims to take waste from healthcare, estimates only half of us take all the drugs we're prescribed, and in the developing world it's worse.

We could save $290 billion a year closing that gap, NEHI thinks.

So why don't people take their medicine?

There are two easy reasons. It hurts, and we forget.

It hurts because many important medicines can only be injected into us with nasty, painful needles. Insulin, for instance. A Swiss outfit called Pantec has a solution, a device that injects drugs using lasers.

The home version can be connected via the Internet to your doctor, who can monitor things, but mainly it won't hurt. When used by a clinic, it can get more shots done more quickly, which we call productivity. The European Community has already cleared it for use, and FDA clearance is expected.

Another reason we don't take our medicine is because we forget. I forget at least once a month, even though I keep my pills in a box clearly marked with each day of the week.

Proteus Biomedical Inc. in Redwood City, Calif. has an answer for you. Swallow a pill which contains a computer chip. The food breaks down in the stomach, leaving you with the chip. (That's the chip up there, from the Proteus Web site.)

You connect that chip, called an Ingestible Event Market (IEM), to a receiver that can either be implanted under the skin or worn like a patch. It's so low-power it can run on stomach acid.

Proteus calls the whole network the Raisin System. The IEM is monitoring your body, it's basic functions as well as your drug use. This is reported to the patch, which then reports to your doctor when you're within range of a wireless network.

The Proteus system has already won FDA clearance. Doctors can monitor compliance with medicine schedules remotely and, just as important, so can the patient's family. No more relying on your own memory. Novartis has already paid $24 million for the marketing rights.

There are several other companies working in this direction. I used to call it always-on technology. Today it's called the Internet of Things. The idea is single-chip sensors monitor your body, reporting back to you and your doctor, increasing compliance at a price that is literally as cheap as chips.

I call it a killer app.

One of the saddest stories I ever covered was the death of my favorite journalism teacher, Richard Schwarzlose, of a heart attack while riding his bike. Had he been using this kind of system, his doctor would have been alerted, and he might still be with us.

I like to ride my bike, too, and I know how the enjoyment of a ride, or your distance from home, can blind you to things happening in your body you should really know about.

It didn't save him, but maybe this can save me. Or you.

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