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As part of our internal research and development (R&D) program, we created a 3D printed proof-of-concept for an Internet of Things (IoT) pill dispenser which offers a viable solution to one of the biggest problems faced by healthcare professionals; medication non-adherence.

It’s thought that 50% of medication is not taken as prescribed* and this causes an estimated 125,000 deaths a year. It’s also incredibly costly, with projected annual pharmaceutical revenue losses standing at a staggering $289 billion**.

Our SmartDispenser combines a 3D-printed IoT connected pill pot and mobile app, that together offer a unique way to monitor how and when patients take their prescribed medication. The technology is easy to use and can be set up in minutes by the patient or their healthcare professional. Once the app is downloaded to a smart phone, the user simply enters the dose and frequency of the prescription and the SmartDispenser will send notifications direct to the patient’s phone when it is time to take their medication. 

The SmartDispenser is able to tackle the problem of medication non-adherence by:

  • Monitoring how and when a patient is taking medication through a weight sensor, and establishing whether they are taking the right dosage.
  • Automatically triggering notifications to a carer or healthcare professional if a patient isn’t adhering to a prescription schedule or dosage.
  • Linking to a smartphone app that will notify the user when it’s time to take medication or if they have forgotten to take the prescribed dosage.

The technology

The SmartDispenser calculates whether a user has taken their medication through a built-in weight sensor and communicates with a patient’s smart phone via a customised Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon. There were a number of challenges that we faced during development varying from product design, to accurately weighing the contents, transmitting data reliably and the longevity of battery-life.

In creating a proof of concept like the SmartDispenser, 3D printing is the perfect solution so that we could be agile in our approach – the product can be iterated quickly and to exact specifications. The physical design of the pill pot had several iterations through the design and development process and then further iterations following a rigorous round of testing to refine the design and ensure it was fit for purpose.

The unit itself incorporates a custom circuit board developed in-house with a BLE module, battery holder and supporting components for the sensor hardware. The headers connect to a load cell that is used to weigh the contents of the SmartDispenser. The challenges were in ensuring the unit could weigh the contents reliably and communicate effectively with a users’ smart phone.

The communication utilises a customised version of the BLE beacon protocol and we had to make sure that this could run for a long period of time (up to three months) from the internal battery. We had to source specialist components that could operate at low power which had development implications as the code had to run on the circuit board in a way that minimised the amount of time the unit is “awake”.

After several rounds of testing and iterations to the design and technology, we’ve been able to create a reliable proof of concept that could make significant improvements to peoples’ lives. The proof of concept was designed with a patient-centric approach and it addresses real world problems. 

We anticipate that the SmartDispenser has the potential to increase medication adherence and vastly reduce healthcare spending. The technology is part of a growing movement to introduce IoT connected devices into the healthcare industry for a more efficient health system and improved patient care. The NHS*** is already trialling a series of Internet of Things based technologies in the UK this year, and it’s expected that IoT will revolutionise the industry over the coming years.

*Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
**Annals of Internal Medicine
*** https://www.england.nhs.uk/2016/01/embracing-innovation

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