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Would You Take a 'Digital' Pill? Bioethicist Warns About Privacy Risk

Proteus digital pill.

Do you always follow your doctor's orders? What if your doctor, pharmacist, health insurance company or even employer could tell if you were taking your heart medication when you were supposed to? How about your HIV medicine?

Would you look forward to a call from your pharmacy or the health benefits department where you work if you missed taking your prescribed pill for gonorrhea, birth control, irritable bowel syndrome, incontinence, herpes or depression?

The Food and Drug Administration has agreed to review a revolutionary, first-of-its kind "digital pill" from Otsuka Pharma and Proteus Digital Health that will let third parties snoop on you and nag you if they see you are not doing what the doctor ordered.

The new pill includes a sensor that can transmit a signal. It is combined with Otsuka's psychiatric medication Abilify, a drug used to treat bipolar disorder and depression. Patients using the pill will also wear a patch.

Once you swallow the pill, a message can be sent back to whoever is registered to get it — doctor, pharmacist, nurse, probation officer or all of the above. If you aren't taking your psychiatric medicine pill the way you are supposed to, it's possible a whole lot of people will know.

The nagging will begin presumably shortly thereafter.

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The challenge to your privacy begins right now.

The FDA should not approve this kind of pill without some clear rules about how it can be used.

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The upside of a pill that signals doctors is that patient compliance can be enhanced — and it needs to be. Twenty percent of prescriptions are never filled. Half of all people who do get their medicines don't take them in the way they are supposed to!

So, figuring out ways to get you to take you medicine appropriate is important. But, developing snitch pills also has obvious dangers for patients.

What your doctor can know others could know — or demand to know.

How secure is the technology? Are hackers going to threaten to expose your medical secrets on line if you don't pay, as they are doing in the Ashley Madison adultery hack? Will children or incompetent people be forced to use tracking pills with no consent, or will a judge have to authorize their use?

Getting you to take your medicine the right way is a very good thing. Approving technology that may destroy any iota of medical privacy you have left is not.

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