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Digital pills may deprive patients of privacy

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the first digital pill, which will allow patients to track medicinal intake through new consumable technology to assist those who inaccurately medicate.

The pill is known as “Abilify MyCite,” and it works through digital transmissions documenting intake information for its users and medical professionals. A microscopic sensor in the pill transmits the data to a skin-patch worn by the user, and then to a smartphone app. The patient can then upload all information to a medical database which their doctor can view.

Chad Raith, Vice President of missions and ethics at Mercy Health in Northwest Arkansas and former professor at John Brown University, recently attended a presentation on healthcare initiatives utilizing technology to promote better health.

“It seems if the technology is properly utilized, it could be a real help to those carrying for loved ones who might have a hard time keeping track of their medications,” Raith said.

“With many of these new technologies, there is and always will be the issue of privacy. How do we ensure information is always being placed in the right hands? That’s a tough question,” Raith added.

Abilify, also known as aripiprazole, is a medicine used to treat psychotic conditions such as Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and Tourette syndrome.

Ellen Odell, professor of nursing at JBU, said mental illnesses are difficult to treat with medication, especially considering the patient’s right to refuse any medication.

“It takes away their choice or right to decide their own destiny with their healthcare,” Odell said. “From my experience, the medications—a lot of times—that are used to deal with mental health issues, have terrible side effects. So, people don’t like taking them.”

Patients can’t be forced to take their medication, even by their doctor, unless the patient is deemed “legally incompetent.” In such cases, a court order is issued and the patient can only be forced with medicinal treatment for a short period of time.

In Odell’s opinion, Abilify MyCite will only be used if a patient voluntarily ingests it or if it is court mandated on an incompetent patient. 

“I don’t think there will be any middle ground,” Odell said.

The Abilify MyCite’s sensor, composed of silicon, copper and magnesium, sends out electrical signals once it settles in the user’s stomach. The body naturally passes along the electrical signal until it reaches the patch, typically positioned on the user’s ribcage. The patch then transmits information about the body’s dosage intake to a smartphone app through Bluetooth technology.

Raith expressed his amazement with technological advancement but also concern that it may be abused.

“I’m particularly concerned to avoid treating the body [on] purely mechanistic terms rather than approaching people holistically as mind, body and spirit. I am also concerned to ensure that the technology always serves the person and not the other way around, which, I believe, is a real risk with some innovations,” Raith said.

Raith believes there may be unnecessary danger in the over-stimulus of medical data for a patient using the technology.

“Too much information can be as dangerous as too little. Like many things in life, too much [or] too little of a thing can be harmful. There must be a balance. One of the pressing balances is utilizing technology to the extent that it actually moves health forward without overutilization,” Raith said.