Smartphone apps remind patients to take their meds

Medicine only helps if you take it properly. And adhering
to an exact schedule of what to take, and when, can be challenging for
patients who are forgetful or need to take several medications.
warn about the consequences and urge patients to use various
techniques, such as using divided pill boxes or putting their pill
bottles beside their toothbrush as a reminder to take their morning and
bedtime medicines.
Still, only about half of patients take
medication as prescribed, resulting in unnecessary hospital admissions
and ER visits that cost the U.S. health care system an estimated $290
billion a year.
To help combat the problem, many doctors are
trying a more high-tech approach: They’re recommending smartphone apps
that send reminders to patients to take their medications and record
when they take each one.
"I think it’s going to become pretty
standard" for doctors to recommend them, said Dr. Michael A. Weber, a
cardiologist at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Weber began recommending
apps to patients a few months ago and already has seen better lab
results from a few using them.
"Some people say, ‘That’s a great idea,’" Weber said. "Even ones who claim they’re
conscientious, like the reminders."
said the apps are particularly helpful for patients with symptomless
conditions, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Those
patients are
less likely to regularly take their medications than
someone with pain or an infection.
"I don’t think they’re going to
change the world," Weber said, though he recognizes benefit of apps.
Even so, he said smartphone apps won’t do much to help people who simply
don’t like taking medicine, fear side effects or can’t afford their
It’s too soon to tell how well the apps keep patients compliant or how long they keep using them.
West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the
independent public policy group Brookings Institution, said some doctors
have reported better medication adherence, but there haven’t been large
scale studies on the effectiveness of such apps.
The apps began appearing a few years ago and now there are dozens.
functions include providing more detailed information on the patient’s
medication and illness, prompts to refill prescriptions, email alerts
about possible drug interactions, doctor locators and more.
have symptom checkers, and one called iPharmacy can identify pills when
patients enter their shape, color and imprinted text. Others are just
for women on birth control pills or patches (myPill) or patients with
complex chronic diseases, such as cancer (CareZone Cancer), diabetes
(Diabetes Pacer, which also tracks blood sugar and exercise) or HIV (My
Health Matters, from drugmaker Merck & Co.). For those patients,
getting off schedule or ignoring symptoms can have particularly serious
Still more apps take distinct approaches. For
instance, Mango Health lets users earn points for complying with their
medication schedule. Those points can be turned into gift cards or
charitable donations.
CEO and founder Jason Oberfest, formerly
head of game platforms at MySpace, said Mango Health partners with
doctors and health insurers who are recommending its app to patients and
The app, featured in Apple’s iTunes store, gives a
history showing users daily results and point total, plus graphs
comparing an individual’s adherence to other app users.
to the company, 46 percent of its monthly visitors use the app daily and
60 percent are still using it after four months. For widely used
classes of drugs for depression, diabetes, high cholesterol and high
blood pressure, the company claims at least 80 percent of its users take
their meds as prescribed. That’s compared to 59 percent or less in
independent studies of overall patient adherence for those drug classes.
heard from people using the application as old as their mid-’70s and
older," Oberfest said, but it’s especially popular with the 35-to-55 age
group, people familiar with video games.
Here are some tips for choosing an app:
whether it’s available for your smartphone’s operating system. Some are
only available for one system or haven’t been updated for the latest
—Ask your doctor’s opinion. Some may not be up on the
different apps but have staff members who can help patients pick and
install apps.
—Start with one of the many free or low-cost apps. Search your app store for "medication
about what you’ll really use. If you only want reminders to take your
pills, that’s all you need. If you’re taking multiple drugs or change
medications often, you might prefer an app with information on your
condition, drug interactions and other details.
—To protect your privacy, pick one with password protection.
—If your life is hectic, consider one with a snooze function.
Follow Linda A. Johnson at
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