Medicine containers that talk and give instructions on dosing have been discussed for a long time, but the first systematic application of the technology has come from a somewhat unlikely the source - the US Army.
Rex, claimed to be the first fully disposable talking pill bottle, will be used as part of a humanitarian aid effort in Afghanistan, still recovering from the war to oust the Taleban regime.
Coalition Forces in Afghanistan are involved in providing medicines to villagers, particularly those in remote areas, and are dispensing medications to 10,000 children per month in the remote Pashtun region alone.
Rex is being supplied by MedivoxRx Technologies, a subsidiary of US company Wizzard Software, and the US Army is the first customer for the device. It employ microchips and text-to-speech technology from Wizzard to audibly tell patients what medication is in a bottle, as well as the appropriate dosage and frequency, refill instructions and warnings.
The bottle is completely self-contained and requires no readers, scanners or playback accessories for patients to use it, vital if it is to be used in remote areas. It is being used to deliver accurate, understandable medical instructions to locals, in their own language and dialect, in an area where people typically are illiterate and rarely speak English, according to the firm.
"The first shipment to Afghanistan was made on 22 September," said MedivoxRx general manager Gene Franz. The initial order is for 1500 bottles to be used in a broad, 30-day field trial, set up after small-scale, informal field trials convinced the Coalition Forces' physicians of the value of the technology.
When they leave a village, the army's medics typically leave behind a supply of medications with a village elder. But all too often the instructions are forgotten a few weeks after the medics leave. A simple push on the button at the bottom of the Rex container allows the bottles to 'speak' what the bottle contains in Pashto, the local language, and describe how to use it.
The current evaluation of Rex will last approximately one month. At that time, the success of the project will be reviewed. If the large-scale trial concludes as successfully as the earlier informal tests, the Coalition Forces could begin broad deployment of the talking bottles early next year.
In addition to its humanitarian uses, the talking bottle has practical applications at home, claims MedivoxRx, which estimates that 2 per cent of all prescriptions dispensed in the US each year go to patients who could benefit from a talking pill bottle. Candidates include the blind. Illiterate people, elderly with problems reading fine print and the cognitively impaired.
Pharmacists in the US are expected to fill an estimated three billion prescriptions this year, so the market for this type of product - if the company's calculations are correct, could be equivalent to 30,000 prescriptions per day or one million people per month.
According to the National Academy on an Aging Society (NAAS), the inability to read prescription pill bottles has profound economic consequences. A NAAS study concluded that the estimated additional healthcare expenditures due to low health-literacy skills were approximately $73 billion (in 1998 health-care dollars).