Meet Your Robot Pharmacist
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because almost 3 in 5 American adults take prescription drugs.
By Zara Stone
Like many people, Peter Havas lives far from his parents. But while the San Francisco entrepreneur misses his mother and father in Australia, he doesn’t worry about their health. That’s because he’s pinged multiple times per day about their medication management and activity levels via an app connected to the PillDrill Wi-Fi health hub in their home. When the parents pop a pill, the system updates that the medication has been ingested and even registers their current state of mind with a scannable mood cube — a different emotion is pictured on five of the six sides to represent comfort levels and pain.
Havas, the founder of the company that manufactures the PillDrill, isn’t trying to be creepy; he’s trying to be cognizant of his parents’ health care — and stay ahead of trouble. In 2012, around 300,000 Americans called poison control hotlines after accidentally ingesting medications, according to the National Poison Control Center. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that half of people with chronic illnesses do not take the prescribed amount of meds. Naturally, this is concerning to people with aging parents, so a flock of startups has swooped in to help the 59 percent of American adults who take prescription medications.
The Pillo is a high-tech pill dispenser in the form of a friendly robot equipped with voice and facial recognition, so it dispenses meds only if it recognizes you.
In January, physicians began prescribing pills embedded with microchips that text patients — or their health providers — when swallowed. Researchers are studying microneedle patches and medicated implants that are impossible for patients to screw up. Then there’s Hero Health, a Keurig-like pill dispenser that gives medication prompts through an app.
“There has been no accurate method for measuring patient medication-taking patterns outside the physician’s office,” says Andrew Thompson, CEO and president of Proteus Digital Health in Redwood City, California. He hopes to change that with the Proteus Discover ingestible sensor that’s swallowed alongside or separately from prescription drugs. Once in the stomach, the pill uses the body’s electrical energy to transmit a signal to a wearable patch, uploading data about medication adherence and body interactions. The data is sent via Bluetooth to a secure app, which is monitored by the patient’s health team. Thompson raised a $50 million Series H round of funding in April and plans to manufacture the schizophrenia drug Abilify with the implanted sensor.
On the less extreme end are gadgets like Pillo, which raised 135 percent of its crowdfunding goal of $75,000 in August. The device is a high-tech pill dispenser in the form of a friendly robot equipped with voice and facial recognition, so it dispenses meds only if it recognizes you. Pillo’s artificial intelligence is also smart enough to ask if you’d like a prescription renewal and send a reorder notice to the pharmacy where you’re registered. It can even tell you the number of calories in your food. (Confusingly, company literature refers to Pillo as a “he,” but his voice sounds like it belongs to a female public school teacher.) Basically, it’s Dr. Siri.
Catalia Health takes a different tack with its Mabu companion robot. The disembodied head, which looks like a mashup of a Minion and a Lego, acts as your personal pain coach. Mabu asks questions and then analyzes the responses using eye tracking and machine learning. It then feeds its recommendations to the connected health team, suggesting medication adjustments. It’s more of a mediator than a medication manager.
“I think the pros [of these devices] are fairly obvious,” says Scott Lachut, president of research and strategy at PSFK, a New York innovation consulting firm. “It’s [about] safety and accountability, particularly where the human element plays a role.” He says that demand for solutions like this stem from a bump in the use of prescription drugs among U.S. adults, which rose 8 percent between 1999 and 2012, according to a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “With increased use comes at least some increase in risk, confusion and falloff,” he says, “especially where elderly parents are concerned.” Lachut has found that most companies offer multipronged approaches, combining sensors with a mobile app for notifications about behavior. And they generally offer third-party access modes to provide some accountability to health professionals and family members.
These advances in medication management are great, but patients need to be able to purchase the gadgets. The Hero Health device costs $999; the Pillo, $599. At a flat $199, the PillDrill is a comparatively great value. Havas won’t share sales figures, although he tells OZY that his company has started a second production run.
Another stumbling block to the adoption of these devices as household essentials: health insurance. According to Mark Brager, vice president of communications at the Advanced Medical Technology Association, many of these products don’t appear to be medical devices as defined by the FDA, which can make insurers reluctant to cover them.
User error and onboarding must also be considered, Lachut says, as well as the question of privacy. “Who has access to all of this data,” he asks, “and how is it kept secure?”
With prescription usage forecast to rise 6 percent by 2024, when a quarter of the U.S. population will be 55 and older, these devices might not provide the perfect solution, but they are addressing what could become a major social problem in the coming years. Havas calls this the Goldilocks effect — products that are either too hot or too cold. In the future, both ends of this spectrum may seem incredibly old-fashioned as people pop a magnetic microbot pill that cruises through the bloodstream like a tiny boat until it finds the right target — a tumor, for example — and doses it with medication. Sound far-fetched? The devices are already in catheter trials.