If you’re the type of person that has trouble remembering to say, take your birth control or heart medication every day, technology offers a solution. Pillboxes, these days, are tricked out pieces of tech. For $100 or less, you can buy one that syncs to your phone, reminds you to take your pills, and even tattles on you to your loved ones if you fail to heed its persistent beeps. Trouble is, the things might not actually work.

That’s according to a new study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine. The authors looked at three medication reminder devices on the less expensive side of the spectrum, asking whether they actually improved medication adherence among 53,480 people enrolled in a pharmacy benefit manager program who were having trouble regularly taking their pills. And in the end, they found the smart pillbox made virtually no difference.

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This is a major bummer, because medication compliance is a huge healthcare problem. In one groundbreaking study in the mid 1970s, researchers looked at 250 hypertensive factory workers and discovered that about half of the workers were taking less than 80 percent of their blood pressure pills. Health economists have suggested that improving medication adherence would be a great way to tackle national healthcare issues while at the same time reducing health care costs. Still, studies suggest that up to 50 percent of patients don’t actually adhere to treatments prescribed by their doctors for chronic health conditions.

Other studies have suggested that in the US, non-adherence cost billions of dollars and results in as many as 125 000 deaths each year, in addition to causing other serious health complications. In other words, people failing to take their meds is kind of a health care crisis.

The researchers sent patients either one of two styles of low-cost smart pillboxes, or a regular old-fashioned no-tech version, then monitored adherence to a pill regiment for nearly two years. In each case, around 15 percent of participants managed to stick to their pill plan on a regular basis. In other words, for already-forgetful pill takers, using a smart pillbox versus a regular pill box had little effect.

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The authors suggest that perhaps smart pillboxes might be effective when combined with other interventions. Some of the higher-end models, for example, have settings to alert family members if grandma forgets to take her pills.

An editorial accompanying the study in JAMA notes that other simple, low-tech solutions, like mail reminders for refills, or synchronizing start dates to be more convenient, have resulted in modest improvement in adherence. There is a lesson here, and it is becoming a familiar one: Technology doesn’t always make our lives better.

[JAMA]