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Design Challenges Faced by Today's IoT Medical Devices

A new breed of connected medical devices that make personal healthcare easy and reliable come hand-in-hand with design challenges IoT product manufacturers will need to overcome.

The internet of things (IoT) is great for helping us remember to turn on the lights, lock the doors, or fire up the air conditioner before we get home, but what’s truly exciting about IoT is its ability to help keep people healthy and even save lives.

With a new breed of connected medical devices that make personal healthcare easy and reliable, the potential in this space is tremendous and we are just starting to see some of the results of what is possible.

One area already reaping the benefits is with connected at-home medication adherence. Prescription drug adherence is a big problem in the U.S., costing the healthcare system hundreds of millions of dollars per year and often leading to health complications for patients who don’t follow their doctors’ orders. A startup called AdhereTech came up with an idea to remedy that problem: a wireless pill bottle that would alert patients when they have to take their meds and keep track of their usage and dosage.

Our product design firm, IPS, was approached by Adhere Tech to help design and develop a second-generation "smart" pill bottle that would remind patients to take their medication. The AdhereTech IoT pill bottle, now successfully being used by thousands of patients, presented many design challenges. The lessons we learned from this initial undertaking can help guide others with similar projects for connected medical devices.

We were contracted to provide a full range of design services for the new product from prototype through manufacturing, including mechanical, electrical and industrial design. The company wanted to take a major step forward from its first generation pill bottle to the second generation. The pill bottle needed to see some big changes – primarily to make it more attractive, user-friendly and manufacturable.

The company’s strategic vision for the new pill bottle was to increase adherence and reduce the costs associated with missed or haphazard dosage. We started by designing the product to connect to a cloud service wirelessly, collecting regular usage data and ensuring that patients are taking pills when they are supposed to. The newly designed AdhereTech smart pill bottle is now internet-connected and can alert patients when it’s time to take their medicine, either through a call or text, or via a blinking light enclosed within the base of the bottle. It also has a wireless CDMA chip that sends a small amount of data, measuring when the bottle was opened and how many pills were taken.

Our product design expertise − in particular, our background and experience designing wireless products − helped us to create the right balance and approach. We viewed the project as essentially a pill bottle with the insides of a cell phone. We were tasked with meeting the fundamental design goals − to build the product to work globally and be manufactured at scale − while also tackling the usability design goals to improve the look and feel of the device, greatly extend the battery life and ensure day-to-day durability. Regulatory compliance was of paramount importance.

Key design challenges for the AdhereTech pill bottle included:

Battery life: As part of the design process, we worked to create a power-efficient design with more than six months of battery life. This challenge was critical for the new pill bottle and we had to make sure it exceeded the patient’s prescription duration without requiring battery recharging. The first generation bottles only held a charge of about 45 days, so the pharmacists would have to swap them out for a newly charged bottle every month when the patient picked up refills.

Ease of use: Since we knew many seniors would be using the new pill bottle, a key design goal for us was ease of use. The challenge was to design a patient-friendly bottle that was actually packed with dense electronics. To make sure it would be simple and worry-free to use, we designed it so that it doesn’t require the patient to connect to the Internet, plug it in to charge it, or download any software – all of that is done automatically.

Regulatory testing and requirements: In addition to the pill bottle product design, we were responsible for facilitating the preliminary regulatory reviews and shepherded the design through FCC regulatory testing. This step is another important part of any IoT product design effort. Regulatory requirements and required certifications must be factored into the design. Because they are connected, IoT products must be tested for radiated emissions and susceptibility. Additionally, cellular carrier testing must be performed.

In the end, the use of IoT design principles helped the new Adhere Tech pill bottle become a big success. Currently used by many top pharmaceutical companies and hospitals, these innovative smart bottles have been shown to improve medication adherence by an average of 20%.

The results are helping curb lost sales for pharmaceutical companies, and more importantly, reducing patients' risk of having recurring health problems. AdhereTech’s solution is making it easy for patients to stay continually on track with their medication.

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