Digital pills: a scoping review of the empirical literature and analysis of the ethical aspects

BMC Medical Ethics 21 (1):1-13 (2020)
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Abstract

Digital Pills are an innovative drug-device technology that permits to combine traditional medications with a monitoring system that automatically records data about medication adherence as well as patients’ physiological data. Although DP are a promising innovation in the field of digital medicine, their use has also raised a number of ethical concerns. These ethical concerns, however, have been expressed principally from a theoretical perspective, whereas an ethical analysis with a more empirically oriented approach is lacking. There is also a lack of clarity about the empirical evidence available concerning the application of this innovative digital medicine. To map the studies where DP have been tested on patients and discuss the ethically relevant issues evident therein, we performed a scoping review of the empirical literature concerning DP. Our search allowed us to identify 18 papers reporting on studies where DP were tested on patients. These included studies with different designs and involving patients with a variety of conditions. In the empirical literature, a number of issues with ethical relevance were evident. At the patient level, the ethical issues include users’ interaction with DP, personal sphere, health-related risks and patients’ benefits. At the provider level, ethically relevant issues touch upon the doctor-patient relationship and the question of data access. At the societal level, they concern the benefits to society, the quality of evidence and the dichotomy device-medicine. We conclude that evidence concerning DP is not robust and that more research should be performed and study results made available to evaluate this digital medicine. Moreover, our analysis of the ethically relevant aspects within empirical literature underscores that there are concrete and specific open questions that should be tackled in the ethical discussion about this new technological solution.

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