Lee Memorial Offers Patients Talking Pill Dispensers

By Frank Gluck, The Fort Myers News-Press

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 on doing that until she confirms she has.

“I take a lot of medication,” said Low, who was been hospitalized three times this 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 today.

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 a staggering $300 billion in extra treatment costs every year.

Lee Memorial Health System, which has been dramatically expanding at-home care options in recent years, began offering the device this summer as rentals to interested patients. Low is the first to get one.

NCH Healthcare System, the largest hospital system in Collier County, does not offer it. But it frequently refers patients to home care agencies that do, said spokeswoman Debbie Curry.

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

How it works

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

It works like this:

• Individual pill doses are placed by caregivers into small plastic cups and loaded into the machine.

• At preset times the pill cups drop and the machine announces that it’s time to take the medicine. It 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 in the machine and calls caregivers to alert them 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, which monitors movement and can detect when someone has fallen.

Lee Memorial charges $80 for installation and $80 per month to use the system.

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

Alarm clock

In practice it may seem to be little more than a medication alarm clock. But it is in a long line of devices aimed to keep seniors living independently and away from expensive hospital stays.

Lee Memorial already offers machines that can transmit patients’ vital signs from their homes.

Other programs offer visits from medical staff to counsel people on taking their medication and making sure that they are healthy.

The organization even has a physician whose job it is to make patient house calls.

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 will increasingly 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 will likely 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, Orlov said.

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

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