The Pill Pusher

A better way to dispense prescriptions

Gregory Reid

Twenty percent of American adults are on more than five prescription drugs—that is, when they remember to take them.

Medication non-adherence—taking too many pills, not taking enough pills, taking the wrong pills at the wrong times—has vast costs, in dollars and lives. It leads to unnecessary doctor visits, hospitalizations, and nursing-home admissions, as well as premature deaths and an annual loss of $100 billion to $300 billion to the U.S. health-care system.

There may be hope beyond those old Sunday-through-Saturday plastic pill organizers, however. New apps aim to improve habits by reminding people when to take or refill their prescriptions and by tracking their behavior over time. A company called Vitality has developed GlowCap, a bottle that lights up when it’s time to take a pill, then chirps, and finally sends a text reminder. Perhaps most ambitious, a start-up called PillPack wants to do away with traditional medicine bottles by collating a patient’s prescriptions and mailing out a roll of personalized packets (pictured), each filled with pills and vitamins, and clearly labeled with the date and time the contents should be consumed. No more thinking you’ve taken a pill when you haven’t; no more absentmindedly taking two.

Dispensing pills not by type of medication but by the time you’re supposed to take them is not a new idea, as T. J. Parker, PillPack’s CEO and a second-generation pharmacist, points out. “In countries like the Netherlands, it’s the standard of care,” he says. “It’s prevalent in South Korea, too.” Parker originally got the idea for PillPack closer to home: his father, who ran a small-town pharmacy, used to dispense pills in daily strips for nursing-home patients. From this seed of an idea, Parker collaborated with the design firm Ideo on a streamlined approach to packaging. “We have the opportunity to make everyday tasks delightful,” Parker told me. “Even something as unsexy as taking pills.”