To Crack Down On Prescription Drug Abuse, We May Need To Build A Better Pill Bottle

Over the past decade, deadly prescription drug overdoses have soared to record levels. But, since abusers often get their drugs from a friend or family member who obtained them legally, it’s difficult for authorities and public health advocates to effectively crack down on this issue. But new technologies could help — specifically, as group of Brigham Young University (BYU) students suggest, an electronic pill bottle that regulates how many painkiller pills can be dispensed at once.

The high-tech regulator, a project that began as part of BYU’s Engineering Capstone program, allows pharmacists to use USB technology to ensure that people aren’t accessing more pills than they’re supposed to be taking. The pill bottle will only dispense the accurate dosage that the pharmacist specifies, preventing their patients from abusing the drug:

Their invention, called Med Vault, basically lets a pharmacist give instructions to the bottle, which then dispenses painkillers accordingly to the patient. Via a USB connection, a pharmacist can use special software to load the pills and program how many can be dispensed per day.

“They can dispense one pill every four hours or two pills every 24 hours or whatever the doctor prescribes,” said BYU senior Madison Clark, the team’s electrical engineer.

It’s a pretty complex design that the team claims is tamper-resistant and break-resistant. The Med Vault requires users to put in an access code to get a pill, making it harder for the drugs to get into the wrong hands (e.g., a small child).

The students specify that their device is intended for drugs like painkillers, not life-critical medication that could be jeopardized if the technology were to malfunction.

The project was sponsored by Blackstone president Chris Blackburn, who is also a paramedic. According to Mashable, Blackburn was especially interested in creating a new pill bottle after witnessing firsthand the effects of prescription drug overdoses that send people to the hospital. He has already filed a patent and hopes to begin producing the prototype — so even though the smart pill bottle began as a school project, it could eventually be available for mass consumption.

It’s not the first creative method to attempt to curb prescription drug abuse, which is the United States’ fastest growing drug problem. In New York City, the police force is experimenting with implanting GPS chips in pill bottles to better track stolen drugs and prescription stockpiles.