Most people appreciate the occasional reminder to take their pills. But you might think twice about a drug that beeps your cell phone—and transmits information to a database—every time you take a dose.

It sounds like science fiction, but the FDA has already approved the first “digital pill,” a medication with a sensor that’s activated by stomach acid. When you take the pill, a signal is sent to a patch that you wear on your rib cage and replace each week. The patch forwards the message to a cell-phone application. Patients can then track their medication use on their cell phones…and choose to share the information with their doctors or family members via a database that the manufacturer states is secure.

Some people will appreciate a pill that tracks itself. Forgetting doses—or choosing to skip days or avoid taking drugs altogether—makes diseases more difficult to treat. The National Community Pharmacists Association estimates that patients don’t take medications as prescribed about half the time. For older adults who often forget to take their pills—or for those on complicated medication schedules—the new technology might be welcome.

But others find the idea a little…creepy. Do you really want that information where it can be viewed (or perhaps hacked) by others?

The new drug, Abilify MyCite, is prescribed for schizophrenia and other mental disorders. Some experts worry that patients who are already suffering from paranoia or other mental conditions may balk at taking a pill that does track their behavior.

There are other unknowns, according to Jack E. Fincham, PhD, RPh, a professor of pharmacy administration at Presbyterian College School of Pharmacy in Clinton, South Carolina, and a former panel member of the FDA Nonprescription Drugs Advisory Committee. For example, will the patch lead to skin reactions? If this occurs, it would discourage use of the patch. And does a digital pill really help with compliance? That crucial question has not yet been studied.

Abilify MyCite will be on the market sometime this year. But other digital pills are being tested for hypertension, while an opioid medication with sensors could allow doctors to monitor potential abuse of these drugs.

Aripiprazole (the generic version of Abilify) is, of course, still available in an oral tablet and can be used as a once-monthly intramuscular injection given by a health-care provider, a method that historically has had the best compliance rates.

It will be interesting to see if the digital pills are accepted by patients as a helpful asset…or perceived as a scary intrusion by Big Pharma. Stay tuned. In the meantime, what do you think? Share your comments below.

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