By Darius Tahir
In the fall of 2012, Nick Valilis was diagnosed with leukemia just as he was starting medical school. In treatment he found it difficult to remember to take his medications at the proper time and in the right order.
“He struggled handling the sheer complexity,” said Rahul Jain, Valilis' classmate at Duke University. “He went from no meds to 10 meds a day. How is an 85-year-old cancer patient supposed to handle that same regimen?”
Since then, Jain, Valilis and a few other Duke classmates have formed a startup company called TowerView Health with the goal of making it easier for patients to manage their medication regimens. Jain is CEO of the company, which was incorporated last year; Valilis is chief medical officer. They are about to launch a clinical trial, in partnership with Independence Blue Cross and Penn Medicine in Philadelphia, to test whether their technological solution helps patients understand and comply with their drug regimens.
That could be an important innovation. Poor medication adherence is estimated to cause as much as $290 billion a year in higher U.S. medical costs, as well as a big chunk of medication-related hospital admissions.
TowerView has developed software and hardware that reminds patients and their clinicians about medication schedules, and warns them when a patient is falling off track.
Dr. Ron Brooks, senior medical director for clinical services at Independence Blue Cross, said he thinks TowerView's solution is a notable improvement over previous medication-adherence technology. “Most of the apps I've seen are reminder apps,” he said. “It might remind you to take a medication, but you have to input that you actually take it. There's no closing of the loop.” By contrast, TowerView automatically provides reminders and tracking, with the opportunity for clinician follow-up.
Here's how TowerView's system works. When clinicians prescribe drugs and develop a medications schedule for a patient, the scrips and schedule are sent to a mail-order pharmacy that has partnered with TowerView. The pharmacy splits the medications into the scheduled dosages on a prescription-drug tray. The tray is labeled with the schedule and sent to the patient, who places the tray into an electronic pillbox, which senses when pills are taken out of each tray compartment.
The pillbox sensors communicate with connected software through a cellular radio when patients have taken their pills and when it's time to remind them—either through a text message, phone call or the pillbox lighting up—that they've missed a dose. The system also compiles information for providers about the patient's history of missed doses, enabling the provider to personally follow up with the patient.
But some question whether tech solutions are the most effective way to improve medication adherence. A 2013 literature review in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association identified nearly 160 medication-adherence apps and found poor-quality research evidence supporting their use.
Experts say it's not clear whether apps and devices can address the underlying reasons why patients don't comply with their drug regimens. For instance, patients simply might not like taking their drugs because of side effects or other issues. “I'd wager that improved adherence—and a range of other health benefits—are ultimately more likely to be achieved not by clever apps and wireless gadgets, but rather by an empathetic physician who understands, listens and is trusted by her patients,” Dr. David Shaywitz, chief medical officer at DNAnexus, a network for sharing genomic data, recently wrote.
Jain doesn't disagree. He notes that his firm's system empowers empathetic clinicians to provide better care. “This solution allows more of a communication element,” he said. “We'll be able to understand why patients don't take their meds.”
That system soon will be put to the test in a randomized clinical trial. TowerView and Independence Blue Cross are enrolling 150 diabetic patients who are noncompliant with their medication regimens; half of those participants will receive usual care. The goal is to improve compliance by at least 10% over six months.
If it works, Jain and his company hope to sell the product to insurers and integrated healthcare providers working under risk-based contracts. The idea is that patients' improved adherence will reduce providers' hospitalization and other costs and boost their financial performance.