Shutting the Door on
Prescription Addiction


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One of the leading forms of drug abuse is pill addiction. We often hear about prescription medication obtained illegally, but sometimes it just comes in the form of someone taking more than what their doctor originally intended.

If only they could be kept to their instructions for their own good.

A Brigham Young University student engineering team went about helping to make that happen.

The device only dispenses prescription drugs according to doctor’s orders, aims to curb painkiller abuse.

The device only dispenses prescription drugs according to doctor’s orders, aims to curb painkiller abuse. Image: BYU

The Beginning

Paramedic Chris Blackburn saw his share of the horrors which result from pill addiction and, through Brigham Young University’s Capstone Program, found a team to help him with his vision of a prescription lock. Dallin Swiss, who worked on the project as an undergraduate student, explains the academic year spent trying to find the best solution. It started with Capstone precepts.

“With brainstorming sessions, Capstone tells you to evaluate your ideas and rank them in ways both quantitative and qualitative—it’s hard to really put numbers to certain things but it does help you see things more clearly,” he says. This partly involved coming up with 500 ideas and then picking the finalists. Believe it or not, a finalist just means it’s in the top 30.

The team behind the device.

The team behind the device. Image: BYU

“We’re taught to not dismiss an idea so easily,” he says. “It may start off with a crazy idea, like, ‘What if gas gets into the tube?’ But then someone else says, ‘Well, that makes me think of something….’”

How they got down to the one involved a method many of us are familiar with—LEGOs.

Building Blocks

“We used LEGO (Mindstorms) with 1,000 pills for this one—it worked 95% of the time," he says. "The basic idea is, you dump pills in and what we came up with is less like a vending machine and more like a gumball hopper. On the other end they’re pulled through and a little sensor watches for a pill and the idea is, as they’re moving along, they’re going to pass a high friction zone. So it’s being pulled through and they drop through and start to fall past the beam of the sensor. It trips the sensor and the device knows the medication was released. And it doesn’t matter what size or shape the pill, it goes through this exit….(The mechanism) makes sure only one comes out and makes sure the other pills stay where they’re supposed to be.”

 

A student works on the electronic elements of the device. LEGO (Mindstorms) was used in the initial stages of design for the device that can dispense various sizes of pills.

A student works on the electronic elements of the device. LEGO (Mindstorms) was used in the initial stages of design for the device that can dispense various sizes of pills. Image: BYU

Even after the pill comes out, a second gate system comes into effect. “That’s redundant in a way but we felt like people that abuse pills are very creative and some of them are very addicted and will do everything to get in,” he says.

Of course, there are still improvements to be made. After all, not everyone who wants extras is trying to abuse—we’ve all accidentally dropped pills down the sink. Swiss envisions multiple upgrades, such as the system currently equipped with a USB port possibly switching in Bluetooth and Internet capability. Because of aspects like lost pills, patient interplay will begin with non-life critical prescriptions but he can see a scenario which would give a user a pill credit to allow for losing one.

Swiss admits some of the work was intense but for him it’s well worth it if it cuts down abuse. Recalling a doctor whose career spiraled because of his prescription addiction and said that this type of device might have prevented that, Swiss knows they’ve been on the right track.  “People have their lives thrown away,” he says. “To be any part in stopping that is what it’s all about.”

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

People have their lives thrown away. To be any part in stopping that is what it’s all about.

Dallin Swiss, undergraduate student

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June 2013

by Eric Butterman, ASME.org