Why microchips in pills matter

Microchips embedded in pills can ease medicine management and empower patients.

Earlier this week, Proteus announced that they have been approved by the FDA to market their ingestible microchips for pills.

Generally, the FDA approval process for devices that are totally new like this is a painful one, with much suffering. So it is a big deal for anyone to get approved for anything.

But this is a far more important accomplishment than a mere incremental improvement. It is an entirely new kind of medical device and, most importantly, a whole new potential data stream on one of the most critical issues in the delivery of health care.

Modern drugs work wonders, but it does not help a patient if the patient does not take them. Historically, and I do mean the stone age here, the ability to consistently take pills correctly has been called “compliance.” But please do not call it that. Most participants in the movement for patient rights regard that term as paternalistic.

“Adherence” is a much more respectful term (although I have certainly heard it used in a paternalistic manner). In fact, as we progress, I should define that when I say “adherence,” what I mean is “adherence to a plan that belongs to the patient.” If a pill that I am taking makes me so sick to my stomach that I cannot take it any more, then when I decide to stop taking it, I am not being “non-compliant” or “non-adherent” to a medication plan; I have changed my medication plan, and I have yet to discuss the issue with my doctor.

Still, even for patients who want to consistently take their pills according to a plan, it can be extraordinarily difficult. It is hard to remember when a pill has been taken. It is hard to remember to pick up a new supply or to call for a renewal. It is easy to forget pills on trips and run out unexpectedly far from home. Pills frequently must be taken with food, or without food, or with or without specific foods. They must be taken before bed or before breakfast. Personally, I have trouble remembering to take even a single pill consistently. But many people need to manage a tremendous number of pills, and they frequently go off one set of pills and onto another. In short, pill management is a huge mess, and it is difficult to organize anything.

The Proteus technology allows a person to wear a patch that can detect when any pill carrying a proteus microchip is swallowed. Using that patch and a wireless connection of some kind, it is pretty simple to enable all kinds of clever “take your pill UX.” With this technology, it will finally be possibly to reliably perform “quantified self” on pill regimes.

It is hard to imagine just how large of an impact this will have on the problem of pills, but “huge” is a conservative estimate. New systems will be able to have digital pharmacy dispensers in the home, which will enable schedules like “take one of these every 56 hours until you have taken 10, and then take one after that in a Fibonacci retracement.” Or complex sequences like “take A and B every two hours, take C every three hours, take D every other day and take E as needed but not more than once a day.”

This should not be taken to mean that this technology will be taking the thought out of taking pills. Instead, think of this as a mechanism to enable greater self-knowledge through numbers. Already, Proteus engineer Nancy Dougherty has demonstrated that the technology could revolutionize placebo research. Dougherty’s work is and should be utterly surprising and delightful, and it should also demonstrate that the potential uses for this technology are unlimited.

As with any game-changing tech, Proteus will have to make sure it uses its new super power for good. I see no reason at all why they would not be in a position to do that (and yes, I fully recognize that many people will disagree).

A quick survey of pill management

In order to celebrate this accomplishment, I thought I would take a quick look at the state of pill management until now. Here is an assortment of the pill management systems on sale at my local pharmacy:


In the following picture, can you tell these pills apart? One is over the counter and one is prescription. Can you imagine trying to sort through these every day?

Two pills

Pictured below are the “big” pill organizers. The one on the bottom is enormous. I think you could cook cupcakes in it. I seriously hope I will never have to use something like that. Note that the ones with the little blue stickers are specifically designed to be easy to open for patients with arthritis.

Big Pill Organizers

I am releasing these and all of my “pill box flickr set” under the creative commons to mark the Proteus accomplishment.

Strata Rx — Strata Rx, being held Oct. 16-17 in San Francisco, is the first conference to bring data science to the urgent issues confronting health care.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20

Photo of pills: “Untitled by tr0tt3r, on Flickr.


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  • Marie

    you first, I am not swallowing microchips for anybody.

    • Kari253kdz

      Are you kidding me?!? I don’t think so!!!

  • i disagree with the statement that modern drugs work wonders. the lack of testing prior to their release coupled with the fact that they stay on the market as long as settlements don’t outweigh a profit margin is a clear indication of the sincerity lacking behind companies marketing them. add to that the supression of the superiority of natural remedies, leaves one wondering how swallowing microchips will be helpful. maybe the american medical system could start swallowing common sense instead. Fred Trotter, you appear a journalist i would not hold in esteem. oh, and the FDA approves useless/harmful material all the livelong day. deceptively scripted biased results, the leniency in what may be termed a placebo, etc, etc. wake up Fred.

  • Ummm no thankyou, one more step for big brother

  • Sounds like an ushering in of the end times revelation. Why would anyone in their right mind want to have a computer chip inside their body? We have all the “medicine” we need growing around us – that is until “Modern technology” manages to genetically modify the health out of it all.

    Let your food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food.

  • William Neil Hyland

    Thanks, but no thanks ! I will continue to search for ways to improve my health (eating real food) so that I don’t need ANY PILLS.

  • Guest

    No way! Seriously, I am starting to believe these conspiracy theorists are telling the truth. What a great way to get us microchipped!

  • 1984, here we come. Verrrrry creepy!

  • Mhunter627

    I’m SOOO grateful for all these comments. I was beginning to think I was Rip Van Winkle and had awakened 50 years in the future! My cubicle partner is going right along with this… well, it is hard to remember to take pills… oye vey. Are people really going to swallow this!!!

  • Candiammerman

    This is terrifying!!! Maybe instead people should change their diets and life styles and get healthy so they don’t need so many drugs…

  • DaveM48

    The rationale for this does not make sense. This will not help anyone remember anything. It will, however, make it possible to track any medication from factory to end user. I suspect there is some thought of controlling distribution of narcotics/”controlled substances”. But there are far more possibilities. Are we going to be scanned to make sure we have taken our pills? Or to make sure we have not been taking “someone else’s” pills? This has a terrible ring of “Brave New World” and “THX 1138” to it.

    Will we be notified when our medications start including identifying microchips? I doubt it.

    • Ang

      Yeah I too would at least like to know if my meds start to have the chip

  • fred trotter

    Just to be clear. In order for this product to function correctly, you have to wear a patch (i.e. like a nicotine patch) that can detect when the chips hit the stomach.

    Which means that there is a pretty simple way to “unplug the camera” regarding this. If you do not want big brother to know, you can just swallow the pills without the patch and no one will know.

    This specific mechanism means that whether the proteus pills will be used for “good” or “evil” will largely depend on implementation. If a doctor/drug company/DEA says “if you do not track your use of this medication using the patch, then you will not get more pills” then it would not matter that you can unplug the camera, it would still be a “big brother” type thing.

    Of course, as it stands there are no such mandates and Proteus appears to be using their tech for good!

    It is interesting to see how many knee-jerk “Big Brother Technology” reactions that I got here, but I saw one say “OMG this will make my pill regime easier. I would like to hear what a person who is actually trying to manage many different kind of pills would say to this Big Brother issue. They are really the only people who can discuss the tradeoff.


    • OMG if my brain capacity is so limited that I can’t organize my pill regime than I guess I can’t take care of myself adequately. Are we replacing caretakers with microchips and patches?

      My argument still stands, your blind eye continues the overabundant and unnecessary perpetual use of more-so destructive rather than helpful products. “They are really the only people who can discuss the tradeoff.” It is interesting to note how you make a blanket statement to discredit and ostracize the opinion of many readers. Oh, and I take numerous herbal supplements and health FOODS that require both remembrance and vigilance.

  • Yessirrebob

    Honestly. If someone needs to be reminded by a microchip that they have taken a pill, I would say they are suffering from dementia. Over and out!

    • fred trotter

      Ok Yessirrebob, Lets say that you have to take 4 red pills, every day before eating. 3 blue pills a day after eating but without taking them within two hours of each other. One pill you can take anytime but not within two hours of having milk, and lastly you have a medication that you take for pain that upsets your stomach if you take it with anything else include within an hour. Given that, what pills should you take in two hours if this happens 30 minutes before you planned to eat lunch?

      Which means that the use cases are either A. have dementia and one pill per day, or B. they have lots of pills.

      It is hard to read your comment as anything but “I do not have this problem, and cannot imagine a circumstance in which I would, so it must not be important..”


      • C A Hafele

        I understand how it can be strenuous and nerve racking to remember. However, My child and myself are ill with auto-immune disorders. We take numerous medications and it all falls on me. I make sure he takes all 6 medications a day some of them twice while giving treatments throughout the day. Not to mention my 4 medications along with my epilepsy medication. I do it everyday for my whole family. . . I do not think taking short cuts are a bright idea. “If the State can tag, track down and force citizens against their will to be injected with biologicals of known and unknown toxicity today, there will be no limit on which individual freedoms the State can take away in the name of the greater good tomorrow.” — Barbara Loe Fisher, Co-Founder NVIC

        • fred trotter

          I am happy to see someone here who understands this problem first hand.

          But I still do not see the leap between “a technology that tracks pill consumption” and ” The government forcing people to take pills”

          Obviously, a technology like this would be an important component for this, but it is not nearly sufficient.

          I think it is naive to think that we will not try it once the technology exists, and I also think it is naive to presume that a technology like this will be used for evil.

          For instance, you regard it as a good thing that you make your kids take pills, but a bad thing if the government makes your kids take pills. I think you are right on both counts, of course.

          But this technology can help you know that your kids are taking their pills on their own, just as easily (more easily) than it can help the govt.


  • Compassionateindifference

    Would prefer trackers that could show us where all these pharmaceuticals end up once they are ingested, partial/fully metabolized and flushed ( hurrah now we can all take oral contraceptives and antidepressant residues for free!!). Drinking water, streams, the ocean. I think this technology should be used to track and target cleanup of pharmaceutical in the environment!

  • Andrea Davis

    Firstly is health and safety issue, and just because is FDA approved, means nothing which we know by history of drugs being approved that cause harm and are delayed from being pulled from market. Big Pharma rules and FDA is not a friend of American public regardless of what mainstream think. So I would be skeptical at point that is hard to get FDA approval and would like to know how long it was studied for it’s efficacy and safety. Integrative medicine is here to stay and wave of future anyway, not polypharmacy approach. I am in health care and can appreciate the challenges of my patients/clients in taking their medicines and supplements.
    I take many supplements myself and yes can be hard to remember, but this notion of waring a patch and some wireless device is really madness and profit oriented to get people to take more drugs. Enough already.
    Try magnets on your refrigerator with notes as reminders for god sake!

  • PostupMike

    How about taking care of our bodies long before we have to ingest C-3PO? Seriously folks!

  • I for one do not intend to be taking that many pills. Go natural folks.

    • fred trotter

      A little FYI, plutonium occurs in “nature”. I can assure you that there is nothing in any pill that did not come from “nature” in some respect. “Natural” in the concept of medications is mostly meaningless. What you think is “natural” is not even remotely close to what I consider to be “natural”, and when/if I ever get really really sick I can promise you that I will want two things A. a cure B. pain control and I will not give one hoot whether the source for either one of those things came from “nature” by some strange definition.


      • So you want A. a suppression of symptoms indicating how your lifestyle or environment has had a negative influence on you and B. painkillers? Plutonium may be natural, but it is known to have a negative influence on the body.

        By natural, I would assume Dorothy means herbs, foods, lifestyles known to promote robust health. These have been documented and tested for thousands of years in various traditional systems. Pharmaceutical medication may be derived from natural sources–actually at least a quarter are based on specific constituents of plants; but plants can’t be patented (Monsanto is trying).

        The chief difference between a lab-engineered medication based on plants and a full-spectrum extract of the same plant is the electrical charge which is MISSING in the lab. It’s not that the lab medications aren’t effective, it’s that they are less so, and ever more so costly.

  • Ang

    Some people have no choice but to take a LOT of pills during the day .. every day .. such as I who had a kidney transplant. No “go natural” about it as the body’s natural reaction to foreign organs (not the same DNA as your own) IS to reject it. Anyway I have a huge set up (the large pill cases .. dated for every day of the week … morning .. noon and night) and I have a system where I turn the pill bottles upside down when I have taken them to help me remember. I would not want to swallow any microchips sorry. But I know this will help many who are willing and have eye sight issues or memory issues or what not.