24 January 2005

South Africa: Technology Reminds Sick to Take Pills

Cape Town — A local doctor has developed a pill bottle that uses cellphone technology to remind patients to take their medicines and warns them if they are about to take an extra dose by mistake.

The SIMpill device is aimed at patients on long-term medication for diseases such as tuberculosis (TB), HIV, epilepsy, diabetes and asthma, for whom missing even a few doses can have potentially life-threatening consequences.

For example, patients with infectious diseases such as HIV and TB may become drug-resistant, and epilepsy patients risk seizures if they skip pills, said SIMpill inventor Dr David Green.

He has already established a service called On-Cue that sends SMS alerts to patients to remind them to take their medication. They also receive lifestyle tips and advice about their illness.

His company, SIMpill, in partnership with telecommunications company Tellumat, is now targeting patients in a more subtle way.

Instead of sending them regular reminders daily to swallow their pills, the SIMpill sounds the alarm only if a dose has been missed, or if a patient tries to take doses too closely together, said Green.

The patented bottle contains an electronic chip that sends an SMS to a secure central server when the cap is removed. The SMS includes a unique pill box identification number.

If the SMS arrives too early or too late, the server sends a reminder to the patient's cellphone, or one belonging to a family member or health-care professional. "Unlike alarm clocks, which often sit on the shelf and beep unnoticed, cellphones tend to be carried around," said Green.

The patients' pill-taking schedules were programmed into the tamper-proof pill bottles by the pharmacist who dispenses their medicines, said Green.

He conceded that the device was not cheap (about R1 800 a patient a year), but said it offered potentially massive savings to medical schemes and the state.

Green analysed the claims made by 11000 epileptics from four medical schemes, and found the combined bills of the 700 who were hospitalised topped R24m.

If all 11000 patients had been on the monitoring system, it would have cost R2m, he said.

The SIMpill device will be launched next month.

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