Tiny Smart Pills Raise Big Ethical Questions

Sunday, 25 May 2014 01:54 PM

By Elliot Jager

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Smart pills that monitor events in the body and transmit information to medical providers, pharmaceutical companies, and family members are raising legal and ethical questions that will need to be addressed, according to The Washington Post.

Ingestible nano­sensors likely to be commercially available within five years, are capable of monitoring whether a person takes their medication. Experts say half of all patients don't take their medicines as prescribed. The smart pills can also stream data on temperature, heart rate, and level of activity, the Post reported.

Such information, while a godsend to concerned family members of the elderly, also raises civil liberties issues.

Among these is whether patients can maintain ultimate control over what information they share with outsiders. How can personal medical data be kept out of the hands of government including law enforcement? Can government compel patients to have their medical records implanted for their own protection as in the case of those suffering from dementia?

Advances in ingestible smart pills, nano chips, and miniature cameras make it possible to assess and regulate what happens inside the body in real time. Such information can provide early warning of infection or a looming cardiac event. Miniature robots are being perfected that can diagnose diseases, target drug delivery, and perform surgery, the Post reported.

Supporters say smart pills in the bloodstream could same lives and reduce medical costs.

"The way a car works is that it has sensors and it tells you what's wrong. Why not put the same type of technology in the body? said author Eric Topol.

Civil libertarians worry about the downside.

"There's something very troubling about a chip being placed in a person that they can't remove," said Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Post reported.

Mary Ellen Snodgrass, 91, of Redwood City, Calif., and her son Doug Webb, 62, an electrical engineer— who works for the firm that manufactures the technology— are both able to monitor her medications and activity.

Snodgrass ingested a one-square-millimeter copper and magnesium chip and wears a patch on her torso. The chip transmits data to the patch, which sends it on to her smartphone. From there it is shared via the Internet, the Post reported.

Webb worries about Snodgrass who is in comparatively good health and lives alone. "I can only make it down to see her once a week, so this is a way for me to check in on her more often," he said.

"Sometimes I see very strange numbers and I'll call her up and say, 'What's going on?' " he said.

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