Biomedical Big Brother in Your Belly?

A newly approved digital drug, while helpful for some, is raising concerns about privacy and biomedical ethics. UniversalImagesGroup/UIG via Getty Images
A newly approved digital drug, while helpful for some, is raising concerns about privacy and biomedical ethics. UniversalImagesGroup/UIG via Getty Images

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new drug that comes with an ingestible sensor, to help monitor patients' adherence to their prescriptions. There are a lot of positive possible outcomes for this kind of technology, but there also are concerns about how it could invade patients' privacy. Stuff They Don't Want You to Know's Matt Frederick and Ben Bowlin talk the pros and cons of ingestibles in this podcast and whether this is the start of a Biomedical Big Brother.

The newly approved digital drug is a version of the antipsychotic medication Abilify. It contains a tiny sensor, the size of a grain of sand, in the capsule with the medication. The sensor interacts with acids in the stomach, sending a signal to a patch worn by the patient, telling it that the medication has been administered. The patch then sends that information to an app on the patient's smartphone, tracking the time and date. And, if the patient has allowed it, that information can also be accessed by their doctor and up to four family members. At any time, the patient can block those recipients with the smartphone app. But even so, patient privacy and medical coercion remain a concern.

The problem is that Americans aren't taking their medicine, and it's killing them: Non-adherence to prescriptions is causing 125,000 deaths and costing between $100 billion and $289 billion a year. That's why creating a technology to help track patients' dosages is a good idea, on its face, although there's no evidence that it actually does help with compliance: As doctors know, there are many reasons for non-adherence, ranging from high costs to a general mistrust of the pharmaceutical industry, which sensors won't help.

And in the case of the newly approved Abilify, it seems counterproductive to the very people it's trying to treat. Abilify is intended to help with symptoms of schizophrenia, where many sufferers experience paranoia. Wouldn't putting tiny sensors in their medication exacerbate, rather than relieve, that paranoia? But for patients on these medications, non-adherence can lead to serious consequences – all the more reason to ensure those prescriptions are being taken regularly, contradictory as it seems.

The main concern, however, is patient privacy. The data collection possibilities alone would cause plenty of companies to sit up and take notice. We might be used to every move we make on the internet being tracked and filed, but every breath we take? It could be the future. Could this become mandatory tech, rather than voluntary? Could we start seeing tiny sensors put in our food? Do the sensors themselves have any negative side effects? How could we possibly know for certain with such new technology? Find out the answers to all these questions and more with Matt and Ben as they ponder the future in this podcast.