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'Smart Label' Drugs Can Talk to the Visually Impaired

February 19, 2001|LAURAN NEERGAARD | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — The man squints at his medication, but his dimming vision can't make out even whether he picked up the Coumadin or Celebrex. So he aims a gadget the size of a deck of cards at the bottle, and a computerized voice begins reading his prescription instructions.

Call them talking drugs. If pilot testing goes well at two Chicago hospitals, blind and elderly Americans could soon begin buying prescriptions with "smart labels" that read aloud the potentially lifesaving fine print.

Millions of Americans have eyesight so bad they can't read newspaper type and thus struggle with medication bottles that put the drug's name, dosage and important safety warnings in even smaller print.

It's a problem that's only going to worsen as the aging population booms.

Inability to read pill bottles can lead to very dangerous mistakes: taking the wrong pill at the wrong time, or the wrong dose, or missing the warning not to drink alcohol or take various over-the-counter drugs with the prescription. Or even when to call a doctor about side effects.

Enter ScripTalk. Beam a small voice synthesizer at a prescription bottle with a special computer chip embedded into the label. The wireless technology translates the printed label into speech, literally reading aloud the pill instructions.

Manufacturer En-Vision America Inc. of Normal, Ill., hopes to begin selling ScripTalk this summer. First, vision-impaired veterans at Chicago's Hines Veterans Administration Hospital are pilot-testing the gadget to learn how helpful it truly is--and nearby Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center soon begins a separate study to see if ScripTalk could reduce medication errors.

"When you're vision-impaired . . . it's very difficult to find the necessary information" to use a drug properly, explains Rush pharmacist Bruce Gaynes.

"Our major goal, and what these systems would allow, is greater independence," adds Jerry Schutter, chief of blind rehabilitation services at Hines.

Hines so far has taught a dozen veterans to use ScripTalk at home. Some "are very happy with it," Schutter said. Others, usually the very elderly, still prefer family members to read their pill bottles to them.

The pilot test isn't over yet, but will help determine if ScripTalk provides enough benefit for the VA to offer it once sales begin.

ScripTalk isn't the only such attempt: Hines also has a handful of veterans testing New York-based Asko Corp.'s Aloud, where pharmacists record drug labels into listening devices for patients. ScripTalk, in contrast, harnesses wireless technology to let computers synthesize the talking label automatically.

Rush's planned 300-patient study, which also will investigate low-tech solutions such as larger-print drug labels, will examine whether ScripTalk reduces medication errors, thus saving money as well as preventing injury. That study could help insurers and pharmacists decide whether to pay for the device.

ScripTalk won't be cheap, Schutter cautions. En-Vision would send participating drugstores blank, microchip-embedded "smart labels." Each drugstore would have to buy a special $1,000 printer that encodes the microchip to read each label once it's printed.

Patients would buy a battery-operated ScripTalk reader, for about $250, that works on any smart-labeled pill bottle. A talking label initially should add $1 to each prescription, a price that would drop as more were sold, En-Vision says.

At Hines, pharmacists had to write special software so the ScripTalk printer could read the VA's patient prescription records, a link retail pharmacies may have to figure out, too.

But En-Vision, which has begun pitching ScripTalk to drugstore chains and insurers, says don't forget one big benefit: Not every drugstore will sell talking prescriptions, so those that do could gain instant loyal clientele among the millions of vision-impaired patients.

Not to mention the technology could be modified to help people who can't read prescription labels for other reasons, such as illiteracy or language barriers.

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