New ‘Digital Pill’ Monitors Patients from the Inside

These just-FDA-approved digital pills can send your health information directly to your mobile phone.

These days it seems like everything is getting a digital makeover, from our music to our vacuum cleaners to our doctors. Now we can add medications to the list, as earlier this week the FDA approved the use of a new “digital pill” that internally monitors patients who take prescription medications via a digital sensor powered by a person’s own stomach fluid. The hope is that the pill, combined with a readout for doctors, can help practitioners monitor whether a patient is taking his or her medication as prescribed.

This new (ingenious?) piece of technology, developed by Proteus Digital Health, is made of a silicon-based sensor, containing trace amounts of magnesium and copper. It’s roughly the size of a grain of sand, passing through (and excreted from) your body like any high-fiber food. The sensors are attached to pills that you regularly consume, and when ingested, they’re able able to keep a record of the time, identity, and characteristics of what you swallowed.

Your body acts as the power source for the sensor. After the sensor comes in contact with your stomach fluid, the magnesium and copper in the sensor creates an electrical charge that is sent to a disposable patch placed on your body which collects specific data such as your heart rate, temperature, and body position. All of this information is then transmitted to your mobile phone app, and if shared with your doctors, the data could be used to develop personalized care based on your specific data.

Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla,California, and one of the masterminds behind the device, believes that although the digital pills are still an upcoming piece of technology, they could still greatly improve patients’ efforts to stick to their treatments and help with chronic-disease management. It is still unsure, however, exactly how much these new devices will cost and if the insurance providers will cover them now that the feds has approved of their use. The device, as of now, has only been approved to be used with placebo pills in order to see if these pills are guaranteed to work, but Proteus hopes that these devices will soon be used with real medications.