IU School of Nursing research scientist helping patients better manage medications

By Rachel Leshinsky

As technology continues to advance, nurses turn to new inventions to help patients improve their quality of life.

Professor Rebecca Bartlett Ellis, PhD, RN, ACNS-BC, is focused on helping people with multiple chronic conditions better manage their medications.

“Medication management is complex,” said Bartlett Ellis. That is why she and her team are turning to technology to help solve the problem. Dr. Bartlett Ellis is currently leading a team of researchers developing and testing smart technologies to help people with chronic kidney disease (CKD) manage their blood pressure medication.

More than 1 in 7 suffer from chronic kidney diseaseThe Centers for Disease Control Recent estimates that more than one in seven people in the United States have CKD. It is chronic, progressive, and irreversible, but taking medicine to control blood pressure can have a tremendous impact. Medications help slow the rate of kidney failure and minimize risks associated with high blood pressure such as heart disease and stroke – the leading causes of death in the United States. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 50% of people do not take their medications as prescribed.

According to Dr. Bartlett Ellis, research evidence suggests there are several strategies that have been shown to improve medication taking. These strategies include using medication organizers such as pillboxes, receiving feedback about medication taking, and developing habits to take medications as prescribed. “We believe that if we can combine these strategies and do so in a timely fashion, we can help people better take their medications”, said Bartlett Ellis. To do this, Dr. Bartlett Ellis and her team, consisting of electrical engineers, a computer scientist, a designer from the IU Herron School of Art and Design, and research professors from IUSON and IU School of Medicine have developed a 7-day smart pillbox and connected smartphone app. These technologies known as the InterACT™ Pillbox and InterACT-Health™ app work together to provide feedback to patients in real-time.

The InterACT™ Pillbox has embedded sensors that recognize when pills are placed in each slot and when they are removed. This information is then sent to the phone application. Patients will be able to get feedback on ways to improve their medication-taking habits based on the information recorded from the InterACT™ Pillbox.

“Today’s health care environment calls for patients to assume more and more personal responsibility for health care,” said Bartlett Ellis. “We want to empower them for greater success and demonstrate just how much of an effect their behavior and choices have on health and wellness.”

Bartlett Ellis and her colleagues are currently testing the pillbox and getting feedback from patients of nephrology (kidney) physicians at IU Health as well as “co-designers,” a group of five adult patients taking hypertension medication. Bartlett Ellis said that they will soon test an additional 36 patients.

Funding for pilot testing in the amount of $107,500 was provided by the Center for Enhancement of Quality of Life, Sigma Theta Tau and the Beverly Flynn Endowed Fund for Health Policy. Pilot funding is critical for researchers to build their programs of research. After pilot testing is complete, Bartlett Ellis hopes to expand the study with external funding to demonstrate efficacy.

“If effective, the future of this work is integrating InterACT™ into nephrology care to help patients and providers partner to better manage medications,” said Bartlett Ellis. “I would love to see InterACT™ used and made widely available across the country.”