Upgrading the Way We Identify Pills with New Technology


Technology is creating new ways to help patients and health care providers evaluate medications, with both start-ups and the NIH looking to use smartphones to help with the process.

“What is this tablet?” is probably one of the most common questions phoned into pharmacies across the nation. The pharmacist indubitably goes through the motions of looking up what medications the patient has recently filled, grabs the bottle off the shelf, and tries to determine whether the descriptions match. Relying on the color, shape, and letters or numbers on the tablet may be enough to confirm the medication. However, sometimes a pill cannot be identified, and the patient has to come into the pharmacy for visual confirmation. My personal favorite is the description of a round or oblong white tablet, which could be just about anything.

Taking that into consideration, a number of resources are currently available to help patients and health care workers identify tablets. Resources include a pill identifier app on a smartphone, websites such as Drugs.com, and medical drug reference suites that often come equipped with a drug identification suite. That being the case, these pill identifying programs inevitably rely on the user to enter the description of the pill, such as shape, color, and whatever imprints are available, and the pill identifier spits out whatever could match.

This can be a complicated process, especially given several factors. One large problem with pill identifiers is that they often cannot provide images for each medication. This is compounded by numerous generic medication manufacturers. Lastly, identifying multiple medications at a time can be a consuming process.

Several companies are seeking ways to utilize technology to reinvent how we identify tablets and capsule medications. One company that stands out is


, a start-up company based in Birmingham, Alabama, that is looking to use the built-in camera on smartphones to identify medications. MedSnap launched a Pill Mapping Project that catalogued the appearance of each pill and tablet that is manufactured. After collecting this data, they created an app that uses the smartphone camera to identify medications placed on a proprietary image pad. Perhaps the most amazing aspect is that the app can identify multiple medications at once, greatly speeding up the process. MedSnap is also exploring the use of their platform for patients to manage their medications, identify drug interactions, and increase their adherence.

Another big player looking to identify medications and creating a library of drug images is the National Library of Medicine. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a large image base of tablets and capsules, which it is now looking to put into the public's hands. The NIH recently launched its

Pill Image Recognition Pilot

(PIR Pilot) to create an app that can help consumers identify medications with their smartphone cameras.

The development of these different programs may be beneficial to not only patients but also health care practitioners looking for a better tool in their work flow. These apps may be beneficial for hospitals conducting medication reconciliation in the emergency department or for identification of medications in possible accidental drug ingestions with toxic effects. Personally, I think it would be interesting to see the capability of creating a system like this that could capture the image of a medication and send it to a toxicology center for identification and treatment recommendations.

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