Florida researchers test antenna-equipped 'tattletale pill'

A study published in February in the online version of the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that 18 percent of new prescriptions are never filled. Other research pegs medication noncompliance as high as half of all scripts for some populations. Part of the reason for the high rate is that it's difficult for physicians to track whether a prescription is filled and darn near impossible to know if the patient actually takes the medication.

"Smart pills" have been touted as a solution to the monitoring issue, though the technology remains in an experimental phase.

At the University of Florida, researchers are testing what they call a "tattletale pill," outfitted with a microchip and digestible antenna to notify a receiving device the patient carries when the capsule is ingested. The receiver then pings a nearby cell phone or computer to signify that the pill has been taken, American Medical News reports.

Before you sound warnings of Big Brother-like intrusion, know that the Florida team sees the technology mostly within the context of clinical trials so researchers don't have to watch every time a trial subject takes a dose. Noncompliance in clinical trials can skew results of efficacy testing, costing drug companies millions of dollars. "So the real question is, if you can use this technology and improve compliance by a little bit, even a few percentage points, it could have an impact which eventually gets translated to the consumer and insurers," Dr. Rizwan Bashirullah, an engineering professor who helped develop the "tattletale pill," is quoted as saying.

Bashirullah does see some limited applications of the technology outside of the trial environment, too. "You can envision it having an impact if this picks up for the elderly, mental health or addiction patients," he says.

The university already has set up a company to market the product, which currently has been tested only in models and cadavers. Bashirullah soon will seek FDA approval and hopes the product could be on the market in about two years, AMNews reports.

To learn more:
- read this AMNews story
- see this Journal of General Internal Medicine study abstract
- take a look at this New England Journal of Medicine editorial