Pills smarter than the patients

Complicated processes, specialized machines and the trained professionals that operate them: these are the hallmarks of modern medicine. Technology tends to isolate the afflicted through the one-way doctor-patient interaction. Exact, universal procedures dominate the field. Pills need to be taken three times a day, spaced evenly apart. Dosages go up or down in exact decimal increments, depending on the generalized category the patient falls into.

It doesn’t have to be that way. What if we could supply pills by monitoring metabolism? What if we could make the experience of taking medicine a tactile one, one that can provide basic information and status displays a natural way?
Through physical cues, we can make the pharmaceutical process of medication more natural, more exact and simpler.

Pharmaceutical researchers, scientists and artists are all trying to re-humanize the modern method of medication. A lot of this work focuses on putting medical data in the hands of the patient, effectively changing the basic interaction between the doctor and the patient. To achieve this, developers are harnessing the power of technology, especially smartphones, in an attempt to turn your bathroom into a medical testing laboratory.

Novartis AG, a Swiss pharmaceutical company, is developing a pill that will use microchips to provide feedback. Reuters reports that the pill will transmit data to a small patch on the patient’s skin, letting them know the size of the next dose and when it should be taken. The pill is designed mainly for those who have undergone organ transplants, a procedure requiring regular supply of medication to prevent organ rejection. The data could be sent to a smartphone and forwarded to a doctor automatically. The goal is to change the patient’s relationship with the medication and tailor a dosage schedule suited to their exact needs.

The researchers at Novartis aren’t the only ones who have acknowledged that the one-size-fits-all concept of healthcare needs to be updated. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Modular Solid State Technologies, in Munich, have developed “an indicator dye that reacts to different pH values,” reports GizMag.com. The dye, to be used in bandages and plaster, turns a different color when an infection is present. Properly healing wounds have a pH of below five; by reacting to a pH between 6.5 and eight, the bandage can notify the patient that an infection is developing and a change of dressing is necessary. The researchers hope the dye will allow the healing process to assume a more natural course.

Building on this idea are several artists and designers aiming to adjust the medication instead of the patient. An NPR.org article details several of the near-future concepts, which range from projects using existing technology to complete medication redesigns. Perhaps the most clever concept is the colour-changing inhaler.

Designed by Mathieu Lehanneur to urge children to use their inhalers, the device changes color when the patient should take another dose. The color change is supposed to symbolize the inhaler is “sick,” and by taking his or her medication, the child “cures” the device. It turns taking medication into an interactive game, motivating children to adhere to their medication schedule.

Another concept, a little more far fetched, involves the production of “layered” medication. Instead of taking a handful of pills, the patient is to peel a colored layer form a large pill. The pill is arranged so the layers correspond to a dosage schedule, and each layer represents a single dose. The design aims to prevent patients from terminating their treatment early.

These treatments all require a doctor to prescribe, but British researchers are aiming to put a little more power — and privacy — into people’s lives using smartphone technology. St George’s University of London is designing a small pregnancy test like device that will test for STDs. The device will interact with mobile phones, and using the phone’s computing power will run tests to determine the presence and type of infection. Designed to be sold for £1 each (about C$1.60), a similar price point to something like condoms in nightclub vending machines, the researchers are on the forefront of preventative technology. The scientists hope the availability of the diagnosis kits and the ability to test in private will remove the stigma from STD tests, decreasing infection rates.

Whatever the case, our interaction with medical technology is undergoing a dramatic shift. Medical tests won’t be something that happens in a sterile white lab; they’ll be going on in our homes. Greater access to our personal health information will allow us to make healthier choices, and help our doctors prescribe treatments tailored to our needs and individual medical history.