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Posted: April 01, 2008

Sensor Necklace Aims to Increase Elderly Drug Compliance

Technology may provide a solution for the one in three adults who fail to take their medicines as prescribed, as well as for the rest of us who occasionally forget: engineers have designed a sensor necklace that records the exact time and date when specially-designed pills are swallowed and reminds the user if any doses are missed.

"Forgetfulness is a huge problem, especially among the elderly, but so is taking the medication at the wrong time, stopping too early or taking the wrong dose," said Maysam Ghovanloo, assistant professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "Studies show that drug noncompliance costs the country billions of dollars each year as a result of re-hospitalization, complications, disease progression and even death."

Ghovanloo and Georgia Tech graduate student Xueliang Huo have designed a sensor necklace that records the date and time a pill is swallowed, which they hope will increase drug compliance and decrease unnecessary healthcare costs. The device could also be used to ensure that subjects in clinical drug trials take the study medications as directed by the research team. The details of the proof-of-concept device were published in the IEEE Sensors Journal.

The necklace, called MagneTrace, contains an array of magnetic sensors that could be used to detect when specially-designed medication containing a tiny magnet passes through a person’s esophagus. And for those who may not want to wear a necklace, MagneTrace sensors can be incorporated into a patch attached to the chest.

The date and time the user swallowed the pill can be recorded on a handheld wireless device, such as a smart-phone, carried on the patient’s body. The information can then be sent to the patient’s doctor, caregiver or family member over the internet. The device can notify both the patient and the patient’s doctor if the prescribed dosage is not taken at the proper time.

According to a 2005 Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive Health-Care Poll, one in three U.S. adults who had been prescribed drugs to take on a regular basis reported that they did not follow the doctor-recommended course of treatment, with two-thirds reporting that they simply forgot to take their medication.

The Georgia Tech team says this technology can also help researchers and pharmaceutical companies conduct more accurate clinical trials of new drugs. Currently, compliance is determined by medication diaries kept by the patients, but patients are prone to fill out diaries just before meetings held to monitor their progress and they may adjust their medication to compensate for missed doses.

Inaccurate data from clinical trials can affect decisions made about new drugs, potentially impacting millions of people.

"If each drug trial volunteer had to wear a MagneTrace necklace, the exact date, time and dose would be recorded, rather than relying on the patient’s memory and honesty," said Ghovanloo.

This technology also has the potential to reduce the size of clinical trials and reduce the need to repeat them. This alone can reduce drug company expenditures, in turn reducing the cost of new drugs for consumers. MagneTrace is suitable for small- and large-scale clinical trials, as well as individual patients, according to Ghovanloo.

"A patient cannot cheat the system by passing the pill past the necklace sensors on the outside of the neck because the signal processing algorithm is smart enough to only look for the pill’s magnetic signature while it passes through the esophagus," said Ghovanloo, who started working on this project about two years ago at North Carolina State University.

The researchers have designed and tested an artificial neck, built from a PVC pipe filled with plastic straws. They place a necklace containing an array of sensitive magneto-inductive sensors around the artificial neck to study detection of a pill passing through it. The prototype MagneTrace necklace with six sensors weighs less than one ounce.

"Preliminary results testing the artificial neck have shown 94.4% correct detections when the magnetic tracer passed through the esophagus detection zone and about 6% false positives when it passed through areas not in the detection zone," said Ghovanloo.

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