Digital Pill Approved By FDA: Some Worry It's 'Biomedical Big Brother'

By Victoria Kim 11/16/17

There's currently no evidence that the tracking system actually helps patients keep up with their treatment regimens.

woman placing pill near mouth and holding glass of water

The FDA has approved a new drug that’s embedded with a digital sensor, allowing patients to track when they take their medication

Patients who are prescribed Abilify MyCite will be able to access their data on a mobile app, after ingesting the pill along with the sensor. They can choose to share the information online with caregivers and doctors, allowing them to monitor if and when they take their medication.

Abilify was first approved by the FDA in 2002 for treating schizophrenia. It's also prescribed to treat bipolar disorder and is included in some depression treatments.

The idea of ingesting a tracking device has raised privacy concerns. Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, shared with the New York Times that it’s also curious that Abilify, of all drugs, was chosen to have a tracking device. People who suffer from schizophrenia may experience delusions or paranoia. “There’s an irony in it being given to people with mental disorders that can include delusions,” said Lieberman. “It’s like a biomedical Big Brother.”

But given that “medication non adherence”—when patients fail to take their medication—is a pretty significant problem, the FDA says that being able to track medication adherence “may be useful for some patients,” especially those with mental health issues.

According to the CDC, medication non-adherence results in more than 125,000 deaths and $100-$300 billion in costs every year. It’s a problem that prompted the World Health Organization to declare that better adherence could have a “far greater impact on the health of the population than any improvement in specific medical treatments.”

The Morning Call reported in October that nearly half of patients with chronic illnesses fail to take their medication as prescribed, “even after major medical events like heart attacks and strokes.”

It’s important to note, however, that the digital tracking system of Abilify MyCite is not foolproof. According to the FDA’s own press release, published on November 13, there’s currently no evidence that the tracking system does “improve patient compliance with their treatment regimen.” It also notes that it’s possible that “detection may be delayed or may not occur” at all. The drug’s safety has not been established for pediatric patients.

So perhaps other, less invasive, reminders to take your meds—like mobile apps and electronic prescribing—would be a better bet for now.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr