A smart way to take medication

A Vineyard family is pushing forward a smart pillbox to help folks who might have issues taking their medications.

Owen Engler (left) and Bill Engler during a visit to the MV Times office. COAD CEO Rose Engler spoke with the MV Times over the phone. — Eunki Seonwoo

One Oak Bluffs family used a dangerous experience as a launchpad to make sure no one else forgets to take their pills. 

Owen, Rose, and Bill Engler were some of the team members of COAD, which stands for Community Adherence. Their company is using Bluetooth technology to develop a “smart pillbox” that will help individuals take the medication they need.

“What we didn’t want was another pillbox,” Bill said. “There’s a million pillboxes in every color and … a few have timers on them.”

All three recently met with The Times.

To make the smart pillbox, each member brings a different skill set to COAD. A senior at Boston College with plans to go to law school in the fall, Owen has been looking at the legal matters for the company, such as patenting rights. Rose, who completed a master in business creation at the University of Utah, and will be attending medical school at Brown University, acts as the CEO. And the self-described “senior in life” — Rose and Owen’s father — Bill takes more of a “back-seat” role, but acts as a guiding voice. 

But Bill doesn’t just provide guidance. He’s the impetus, after he suffered a stroke. 

“It turned out that his [medication] adherence was a contributing factor to the stroke, so he’d often forget to take vital medications,” Owen said. (According to the National Institutes of Health, medication adherence is “the degree to which the person’s behavior corresponds with the agreed recommendations from a healthcare provider.”)

After the stroke, the Englers called Bill daily to ensure he took his medicine. This led to the realization that people would benefit from a product that reminds them when to take their medications. 

Bill said he works in marketing for pharmaceutical companies, and he is aware of the importance of taking medications, which he did not really need to do before the stroke. 

“I know better; I know you’re supposed to take this stuff,” he said. “But I couldn’t remember, and just couldn’t believe I was so unique.”

This was an “aha moment,” and further digging showed that according to a 2012 public health report from the National Institutes of Health, 75 percent of Americans had trouble taking their medication as directed. The report also said 125,000 deaths per year were caused by medication nonadherence in the U.S. 

COAD’s pillbox combines hardware, software, and behavioral sciences. The pillbox itself, a patent-pending design, will have a magnetic strip so it knows when it has been opened. A weight sensor will detect whether a pill was taken. On the app, the patient would input their medications and schedule. The app connects with the pillbox through Bluetooth. The final piece is five accountability buddies (family or friends) set in the app, who will be notified if the medication was not taken. The notifications would continue until the patient takes the medication.
Although someone could set up notifications on their phone, Owen pointed out not everyone will pay attention to them, compared with messages from loved ones. “That’s why we’re involving friends and family,” he said.

Rose “grabbed the reins” of the company when she saw that many people could be saved with the product. In particular, they addressed a big need of uncertainty within families over whether their loved ones remembered to take their medication. 

Additionally, Rose said, a lot of data on whether medicine was being taken was based on patient input, which can skew the information being received. COAD’s design is a less “probing” method of collecting data that can help the patient. Bill said the data patients collect will be something they can show their doctors, which will provide more tools to support these individuals.

“The hardware is absolutely necessary,” she said over the phone, adding that a simple and streamlined process would help. “The hardware is the No. 1 accountability buddy you have.”

Rose said while she was studying at Brown University, COAD was put through a “practicum class” last September that helped identify how to get the company to market. This also included interviewing 500 stakeholders, like patients and healthcare providers. This was followed by the development of a prototype. Rose’s friends in college also joined COAD to build the software side of the project. 

Building COAD continued in Utah, where Rose attended a nine-month accelerator program to develop the company. Additionally, the company earned funding through various pitch competitions, such as one at Brown University for student companies, and the Perfect Pitch competition on Martha’s Vineyard. 

Bill said the Vineyard also acted as an “incubator” for COAD. They connected with Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and their supportive team. Additionally, the Island was a market the family was familiar with, including people and practitioners they personally knew. 

“We’re so excited we’re able to do this and get it into people’s hands, so the patients will be able to give us feedback on how well it’s working, what shortcomings [it has], what’s really positive, and the doctors will be able to give us feedback on the reports, how it’s learning, and from there, we can go to greater systems,” Bill said, adding that he felt COAD’s product could “help the world.” 

Additionally, the Englers emphasized how the test can improve local patient data for Martha’s Vineyard. 

The test will take place this summer or this fall. 

Martha’s Vineyard Hospital Chief Nurse Claire Seguin said while details are still in the works, she looks forward to COAD’s product. 

“We are excited about the possibilities of this innovation for our patients, but exactly how and when it will be introduced remains a work in progress,” she said. 

Those interested in the patient trial should email rose_engler@coadhealth.com.