Why Investing In Smarter Pill Bottles Could Help Us Save Billions Of Dollars In Health Costs

Concept for a pill bottle that would look a rotting banana when it's past its expiration date. (Credit: Wall Street Journal)

A pill bottle that glows blue when it’s time to take another dose, and red when you’ve accidentally forgotten to take one. Pills embedded with sensors that allow doctors to track who’s swallowing them. A pill bottle that starts to grow spots, like an overripe banana, when the medicine has expired.

Insurers and pharmacies are increasingly investing in these kind of start-up ventures, hoping to develop new technologies that can help Americans stick to their medication regimens. But why is this area of innovation becoming a top priority? It’s largely because the Americans who fail to take their medication as directed contribute to billions of dollars in wasteful health care spending every year. People who skip doses, take pills that have expired, or lapse too long between refills often experience health complications that lead to unnecessary hospital and doctor visits, ultimately costing insurers an estimated $290 billion each year.

Pharmacy-benefit programs like CVS Caremark have typically relied on robo-calls and mailers to remind their patients to take their pills as directed. But the old tricks aren’t working. “After six months’ time, only half of people taking prescription medicines are taking them as directed,” said Troyen Brennan, the chief medical officer of CVS Caremark Corp., explained to the Wall Street Journal.

So they’re trying to step their efforts up a notch. CVS is pilot-testing a new technology that will allow them to better track the patients who have track records of failing to adhere to their medication schedules. And other companies are working on developing apps that will reward patients who take their pills on time with gift certificates and coupons. And they continue to evaluate a range of other innovative ideas to accomplish the same goals, like new high-tech pill bottles.

There have been other recent pushes to build a better pill bottle, too, but those have been focused on addressing a different issue with prescription drugs — the Americans who end up abusing them. In Utah, a group of college students built an electronic pill bottle that will only dispense the specific dosage that the pharmacist has prescribed, preventing their patients from taking too much of the drug or selling the pills to other people. And in New York City, the police force is currently experimenting with implanting GPS chips in pill bottles so they’ll be able to better track stolen drugs and illegal prescription stockpiles.