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How Smartphones Help People Remember to Take Medications

UAMS researchers find that apps can get the job done.
LITTLE ROCK, AR (News Release) - Smartphones could be part of the answer to a $100 billion problem facing the health care industry involving patients who don’t fully adhere to their prescribed medicine regimens, according to researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) College of Pharmacy.

But the potential that smartphone medication adherence applications hold is a largely untested and unregulated science. That’s what a team of researchers at the UAMS College of Pharmacy is trying to change after a first-ever study of its kind that evaluated features of medical adherence apps and identified the possibilities the technology holds. The complete study was published in the March-April edition of the prestigious Journal of American Pharmacists Association. 

“Medication non-adherence is a common, complex and costly problem that not only contributes to poor outcomes for patients, but also taxes our health care resources,” said Brad Martin, Pharm.D., Ph.D., director of the UAMS College of Pharmacy’s Division of Pharmaceutical Evaluation and Policy and co-director of the UAMS Translational Research Institute’s Comparative Effectiveness Research Program. “While adherence is difficult to measure precisely and many interventions have been largely unsuccessful, we feel that this budding arena of smartphone apps is a way that could soon be a viable strategy for pharmacists and doctors to recommend to patients, particularly for patients where forgetfulness is problematic.”

But with more than 160 medical adherence apps readily available and more becoming available weekly, research will be key to identifying what features are most effective in meaningfully improving adherence. The recent study completed by UAMS College of Pharmacy researchers identified and ranked available apps on the three primary smartphone operating systems, including Apple, Android and Blackberry. In addition to Martin, the team included Seth Heldenbrand, Pharm.D., assistant professor; Lindsey Dayer, Pharm.D., assistant professor; Paul Anderson, a graduate student in the UAMS College of Pharmacy’s Division of Pharmaceutical Evaluation and Policy; and Paul Gubbins, Pharm.D., professor.

The team reviewed 160 apps and ranked them based on their most useful features for patients and health care providers and then tested the top apps to judge whether they met their claims. 

“While some apps had similar features, they might have been presented or designed in a way that was more user friendly or helpful,” Dayer said. “The purpose was to gauge just how useful these apps can be and hopefully improve the potential for this technology.”

The growing prevalence of smartphones and the easy and cheap accessibility of medical adherence apps make them appealing to anyone taking prescription medications that owns a smartphone, but could be most beneficial for those with complex medication regimens or for caregivers or family members of those patients. Features on some of the apps included in the study are reminders that can be set for consumption and refills, dose-logging, data logs accessible by patients or that can be uploaded to health care providers, and basic medication information.

“There are already plans in the works to integrate smartphones with health-monitoring devices that transmit data directly to patients or physicians,” Heldenbrand said. “There have been studies done and more coming in areas of health wellness, such as weight management, but we thought that patient use of these medicine adherence-type apps was lacking.”

More than 55-percent of Americans have access to smartphones, opening up a sizable opportunity to put a dent in the large number of patients who do not adhere to their prescription medication regimen.

“But that’s only going to be as effective as the apps on the market allow it to be,” Martin said. “We know that research is key to the improvement of health care, and this initial study opens the gate for future research that can have an impact on adherence and how we tackle this problem in the future.”

The initial research for this study was partially funded by the UAMS Translational Research Institute. Its mission is to help accelerate research that will improve the health and health care of people in Arkansas and across the nation. It is one of 60 NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award recipients.
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