Whenever I feel as though our troubled healthcare industry may be pausing for just a moment to reclaim some sense of proportion or practice just a smidgen of humility, I stumble upon yet another reason to stay away from the doctor’s office. This time it was a report in the Washington Post that breathlessly heralded the development of “smart pills” that “many predict will be a revolution in medicine.”
Here’s how reporter Ariana Eunjung Cha, put it:
“As the size and cost of chip technology has fallen dramatically over the past few years, dozens of companies and academic research teams are rushing to make ingestible or implantable chips that will help patients track the condition of their bodies in real time and in a level of detail that they have never seen before.”
Cha profiles a 91-year-old California woman, into whose heart and thyroid pills a computer chip has been embedded. Once she swallows the pills, the chips send a signal to her computer telling her she’s swallowed the pills.
I’m not making this up.
Now, to be fair, lots of people have to take lots of pills every day, and I can see how you might lose track. And, in fact, doctors are constantly encouraging their patients to take their pills, because patients either forget to take them or can’t afford to pay for them in the first place. And when the only tool you have in your toolbox is a prescription pad, well, you can imagine the angst.
But that makes me think that maybe the computer chip has been planted in the pill mainly to make the doctor feel better, which makes me wonder what the upside is for the patient. But, of course, that would be thinking logically. And if we were thinking logically, what might first come to mind would be: You’re asking me to swallow a computer chip?!?
Cha allows that “the idea of putting little machines into the body makes some uncomfortable,” but goes on to quote advocates, who say the technology (which includes everything from the aforementioned ingestible computer chips to cameras and robots) could cut costs and “save countless lives.”
As Eric Topol, director of Scripps Translational Science Institute, notes, “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? It could warn you weeks or months or even years before something happens.”
I love how those warning lights work in my Honda. They tell me when it’s time for an oil change or if my tires are low. But, at the risk of being labeled as an anti-revolutionary, I’d just like to point out something that might not be obvious to revolutionaries like Topol: I’m not a car.