There's a company that's just a stone's throw from our offices here at Blekko called Proteus Biomedical that is trying to change all of that. Their device, called the Raisin, aims to provide real time data feedback on the effects that medication has on the body, once taken. How do they do that?
In the Raisin system, each pill contains an "ingestible event marker" (IEM). The IEM consists of a sand-grain-size microchip with a thin-film battery that is activated on ingestion, as it is exposed to water. The battery, Proteus says, is nontoxic because it is made from materials similar to those in a vitamin pill. Once swallowed, the IEM sends through the body's tissues a high-frequency electrical current that's modulated in such a way that it provides a unique marker of the pill. It's not an RFID technology: it uses the conductive tissues of the body to conduct the signal, rather than a radio, and the signal is confined within the body.
Pretty cool, eh? If nothing else, just being able to have some sort of compliance monitoring for whether or not people are actually taking their pills or not would be a big win. According to the above linked article, 40 percent of hospital readmissions for heart failure happen because patients fail to take their medications properly. This sounds like health care reform we can all get behind.
Anyway, kudos to Proteus on their development - and kudos to my friend Rob (the ex-satellite designer) who has done a lot of the design work on raisin.