Despite its potential, it also will be a long time before digital pills become a routine part of healthcare delivery.

Even though developers tout the benefits of digital pill technology, big drug makers and doctors still see such technology as a tough swallow, says a new report from L.E.K. Consulting. It also will be a long time coming.

In November the Food and Drug Administration approved the first digital pill—a pill that is essentially a digestible sensor that captures information about whether the patient is taking the prescribed medication on time and in the proper amounts. The FDA approved a version of a “smart” pill from Japanese drug maker Otsuka Pharmaceutical for certain psychiatric decisions.

The digital pill works by sending a message from the pill’s sensor to a wearable patch worn by the patient. The patch transmits the information to a mobile app so that patients can track the ingestion of the medication on their smart phone. Patients also can permit their caregivers and physician to access the information through a web-based portal.

More hospital and health systems are testing the waters on the use of digital pills. For example, an emergency department physician and researcher, Dr. David Chai, recently used digital pills for a Brigham and Women’s Hospital study on Opioid abuse, and Rush University Medical Center in Chicago last summer conducted a pilot project involving “small pills,” or a prescribed dose of medicine embedded with a small digestible biosensor the size of a grain of sand to help patients take pills on time.

We expect it may take the healthcare world up to a decade to fully wrap its head around the potential of digital medicine

Digital pill advocates believe the use of such pills can help with better and more precise outcomes when precise information about an individual’s use of drugs is analyzed and then aggregated, says Helen Chen, a managing director and partner at L.E.K. Consulting, which tracks digital healthcare. In a new research report, Chen notes that doctors benefit by prescribing digital pills because they are able to track patients based on accurate and continuous data for their heartbeat and temperature, whether they’re sleeping or walking, and whether they’ve taken the right medication at the right time.


Digital pill technology also holds out promise to be used to select the right patients for a clinical trial or to better understand how patients respond to drug treatment and the big problem of getting patients to follow directions for taking their medicine–approximately 50% of patients do not adhere to their medication as prescribed. Complications for patients not taking prescribed medication results in billions of dollars in unused pills and up to $300 billion annually in unnecessary hospitals stays and related care, says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Digital medicine, by enabling the remote monitoring of a patient’s medical adherence coupled with physiological data, can alert a physician to events that may require intervention, such as a skipped dose or an alarming side effect,” Chen notes in the research paper. “This dramatic improvement in a patient’s remote access to a healthcare professional holds the potential for upgrading the speed and accuracy of medical decision-making.”

Despite its potential, it also will be a long time before digital pills become a routine part of healthcare delivery, says Harsha Madannavar, an L.E.K managing director and partner focused on technology, healthcare and life sciences. Among the biggest obstacles, he says, are big drug makers and doctors. “There is a degree of skepticism among pharmaceutical companies and some physicians,” he says. “Pharmaceutical companies, like other large organizations, can be notoriously slow to integrate innovative technologies or platforms.”

Overworked physicians are another problem. “Physicians, particularly those in large hospital systems, have barely enough face time with patients and even less time to adapt to new care-delivery models or new decision-making paradigms,” he notes in the L.E.K report.


The rollout for digital pill technology will happen—but only gradually, L.E.K says. “We expect it may take the healthcare world up to a decade to fully wrap its head around the extraordinary potential of digital medicine,” Chen says.

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