In the next few months, Swiss drug maker Novartis AG plans to begin testing a "smart pill" that will be able to collect information inside the body, and send it back to the patient and doctor. This futuristic technology could have wide-reaching implications for medical efficiency and the doctor-patient relationship — but should it worry privacy advocates too? Here's a brief guide:
How does the smart pill work?
A patient ingests a pill embedded with one of the microchips, which is "about the size of a grain of sand." Moisture in the patient's stomach acid activates the chip. The chip then broadcasts to a small patch, on the arm, that is connected to the patient's phone via Bluetooth. The information can also be sent to a doctor. Initially Novartis will use the chips, developed by a California startup called Proteus Biomedical, to report on whether patients are taking their medicine at the right time.
Is this really the wave of the future?
Novartis plans to start by issuing the microchips in medicine used to avoid organ rejection in transplant patients. But Trevor Mundel, head of development at Novartis, says the company hopes to expand the use of smart pills to other types of medicine. It also hopes to use the chips to send feedback on everything from heart rate to blood pressure, to help ensure that medicine is working properly. Beyond the medical benefits, says Mundel, the "cost savings could potentially be the difference between a phone call and an emergency room visit."
What about privacy concerns?
Skeptics have expressed concern that doctors could be able to continuously monitor a patient. But Novartis says that won't happen, because the chip's power expires after a few hours. As for hackers, the connection between the chip and Bluetooth travels over "the same kind of encrypted pathway we use when paying our bills online," says Deborah Huso at AOL News. Still, a Novartis spokesman says that medical regulators will make sure all "data privacy issues" have been resolved before approving the pills for widespread use.