• Article
  • January 4, 2017

'Smart Pills' Help Doctors Monitor Patients from a Distance

A tiny, ingestible sensor is helping doctors and families monitor patients' health and ensure medication compliance.

Kidney transplant patient Izayah Neil with his mom, Tara, takes smart pills to help him stay on track with his medication schedule, as well as providing health information to doctors.
Kidney transplant patient Izayah Neil with his mom, Tara, takes smart pills to help him stay on track with his medication schedule, as well as providing health information to doctors.

Like many parents with teenagers, Tara Chamberlain feels the need to stay on top of her son's chores. Except that one of Izayah's chores is taking medicine essential to his survival following a kidney transplant. And that's no household task—it's an urgent necessity. "We had to make sure we were taking the meds on time, so we would both have alarms set on our phones," Chamberlain says.

Izayah, now 15 and two years post-transplant, is doing well, but still needs several daily medications at regularly scheduled intervals to help keep his body from rejecting his transplanted kidney. But now, a groundbreaking new technology is helping him stay on task.

A smart solution

It's called smart pill technology. That means Izayah's daily medications include a tiny sensor that, when ingested, transmits a signal to a patch he wears on his torso. From there, the information from the sensor is sent to Izayah's tablet and then on to his doctors at Children's Health in Dallas and to his mom so everyone knows he took his medicine.

A first of its kind 

Children's Health is the first pediatric system in the United States to use smart pills to treat pediatric patients. The technology allows Izayah's care team at Children's Health to monitor his heart rate, sleep levels and even measure his physical activity. Izayah's tablet alerts him if he misses a scheduled dose, and it flags his care team of any missed or inaccurate doses.

"This is part of the future of medicine," says Dev Desai, M.D., chief of pediatric transplantation at Children's Medical Center. "This is a great example of technology that is enabling better and more efficient patient care. Certainly, it's a benefit for the patients; it's a benefit for the care providers and, in the long run, it will have overall public health benefits as well."

What's next 

Children's Health is planning to treat 75 of its transplant patients with the smart pill. Ultimately, the technology can benefit patients with any kind of chronic medical condition that requires regular medication, but Desai sees a profound impact particularly for transplant medicine.

"In the kidney transplant population, it's been well studied and published that the number one reason that teenagers and young adults lose their transplanted organs is due to medication non-adherence," Desai says. "The goal of this is to have these children keep their organs healthy for a long time. If they don't follow their care plans, if they don't take their medications as they should, we see complications, which potentially result in a patient needing a second transplant."

Desai says he's received a number of inquiries from other children's hospitals about the smart pill. He believes widespread adoption of the technology could have far-reaching effects.

Putting families at ease

For Chamberlain, the smart pill has already been life-changing technology. And as Izayah gets older, she knows she won't always be there to ensure he's taking his medication properly. So the smart pill provides her with a healthy dose of contentment. "It's something he can control and take care of himself, so when I'm not around he knows exactly what to do," Chamberlain says. "That's a big benefit for me, because I don't have to worry."

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.