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Talking machine reminds you to take meds

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Updated: November 13, 2012 10:46AM



The talking machine that dispenses pills looks vaguely like a coffeemaker, and it nags 87-year-old Doris Low relentlessly.

“Time for your medication,” its robotic voice announces three times a day, reminding Low to take the 17 pills she needs to treat her diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

It will keep doing that until she confirms she has.

“I take a lot of medication,” said Low, who was hospitalized three times over the recent summer alone. “This way I don’t forget about them.”

The Philips Medication Dispenser is one in a long line of new gadgets that monitor the sick outside of hospitals and help address one of the most vexing and expensive problems facing U.S. health care.

Medication “nonadherence” — jargon for not taking prescribed drugs as directed — can make bad diseases worse and lead doctors to prescribe unnecessarily powerful doses of dangerous drugs.

By some estimates, skipping meds is responsible for 120,000 U.S. deaths and up to $300 billion in extra treatment costs every year. As many as two-thirds of patients do not take their prescribed medication properly, sometimes to save money but often because of forgetfulness, research shows.

While the cost to buy an automated pill dispenser or others that are similar can be almost $900, Philips Lifeline, many hospitals and home health care agencies across the country offer month-to-month rentals. Low is the first to get one from Lee Memorial Health System, which has been expanding at-home care options in recent years.

Low’s recent hospitalizations followed severe bouts of dizziness, her family said. No diagnosis was given, but her daughter, Sharon Struck, suspects her mother wasn’t taking all of her pills.

“She has 17 different medications,” Struck said. “Who the heck can keep track of that?”

The dispenser works like this:

† Caregivers place individual pill doses into small plastic cups and load them into the machine.

† At preset times, the pill cups drop and the machine announces that it’s time to take the medicine. The machine will repeat the message for 90 minutes until a confirmation button is pushed.

† If pills are not taken, the machine puts the pills in a locked storage space inside the machine and calls caregivers to alert them that something is wrong. It similarly makes reminders when the loaded medicine — the machine dispenses only pills — is running low.

The medication dispenser is manufactured and monitored by the same company that offers the Lifeline System that allows users to press a button that they wear if they’ve fallen and can’t get up.

“I just think it’s one of the absolutely best things I’ve seen since I’ve been in home health care,” said nurse Cathy Brady.

In practice it may seem to be little more than a medication alarm clock. But it is one in a long line of devices aimed to keep seniors living independently and away from expensive hospital stays. Among other devices are machines that can transmit patients’ vital signs from their homes to doctors’ offices.

An AARP study of such home technologies found that most seniors are receptive to the idea.

Three-quarters of seniors told the organization in 2007 they are comfortable with devices that monitor their health from home; 80 percent of caregivers think it is a good idea.

The goal of all of these efforts is to prevent rehospitalizations, for which Medicare increasingly will not pay, and to allow older adults to have as much independence as possible.

Its also big business. Lori Orlov, a medical industry analyst, said technology aimed at independent living for seniors likely will be a $20 billion industry by the end of this decade.

“The interest level in remote monitoring of chronic conditions has gone up,” Orlov said. Insurance companies and government cost-cutters are among proponents.

“They want to lower costs,” she said. “And you want to stay out of the hospital.”

Gannett News Service



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