Apple isn’t inventing anything new with its medication tracking feature for iPhone and Apple Watch, which the company announced as part of watchOS 9 at WWDC 2022 this week. Exist a lot of apps that alert users when their medication is due.
But trying to get people to take their drugs regularly is a major problem in healthcare, and around half of the people prescribed medications for chronic conditions don’t take them as instructed. That non-adherence costs the healthcare system hundreds of billions of dollars a year because people get sicker when they don’t take their meds properly. And even though the tool doesn’t have everything on experts’ wish lists for the ideal drug app, a tech company like Apple entering the ring could be a helpful development.
“I think it is a step in the right direction,” says Seth Heldenbrand, an associate professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Users can input the medication list and create a reminder for each one. When it’s time to take a med, people get an alert on their iPhone or Apple Watch. To log their dose, users can click “taken” and “skipped”. You can track the number of times you take your medication over time using Health App.
These types of nudges can help improve medication adherence, research shows. It’s helpful for the subset of patients where forgetting to take a drug is the main reason that they’re not adhering to a treatment plan, says Mary de Vera, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia who studies medication adherence. But it’s less helpful for other groups: if someone isn’t taking medication because they don’t understand why it’s necessary, a smartphone alert isn’t going to solve the problem.
People who use Apple’s medication app will be able to share their medication history with family members or others through the Health app’s sharing feature. That could give doctors insight into how their patients are taking medications, which Heldenbrand says is useful information. However, the communication would only be through the app. De Vera states that one-sided communication about medication is less effective than one where doctors can reply. Nudges tend to work better if they’re part of a positive feedback loop with providers.
A reminder function might not be enough to drive significant changes in medication compliance. A patient may have an internal motivation to use something similar and interact with it. But, do they actually keep it going and is it helping them to take their medication? That adherence needle is a hard needle,” Heldenbrand says.
This feature will be easier to use than other standalone apps on iPhone. Users wouldn’t have to figure out how to download and set up a separate program, especially if they’re already using the Health app. Because this is in the existing Apple ecosystem, it also means users aren’t sending their health data to another third party. “That provides a layer of protection for patients’ privacy,” Heldenbrand says.
Apps can also change, but a tech company like Apple provides more security to an individual’s daily routine. Experts believe this could help people keep their medication. De Vera states, “This is a long-term game especially when it comes to medication adherence.” It can be life-long for some patients. So you need a player that is going to play the long game.”
A medication feature means people and their doctors could see how medication adherence is related to changes in things like sleep, exercise, and heart rhythm on the Health app. Those relationships could also be valuable to researchers looking at big-picture trends. Right now, even though there’s data to show that some people take medications more regularly when they’re using an app, it’s not clear if or how much that goes on to improve their health, Heldenbrand says. “That’s the million dollar question right now.”
Of course, that would require Apple to decide to either share information with researchers or launch their own studies to answer some of these questions. If they do, though, there could be a lot to learn. “It’d be very rich,” de Vera says. “And it would lead to a better understanding of how patients are taking their medications.”
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