How Technology Is Helping Patients Increase Medication Adherence

I had the pleasure of interviewing Timo Heikkilä, a digital health technology expert, futurist and a co-founder of Popit Medical…

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I had the pleasure of interviewing Timo Heikkilä, a digital health technology expert, futurist and a co-founder of Popit Medical Technologies, a startup focused on improving medication non-adherence. Before starting his journey in digital health, Timo was responsible for channeling consumer trends and cutting edge technologies to flagship smartphones and wearables at Nokia and Samsung. Results of his work are currently in the hands of millions of smartphone users worldwide. Timo holds a master’s degree in economics and a BBA in business economics.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

Not at all, my pleasure entirely! Thanks for asking me to share my thoughts on the future of healthcare with you and the readers.

After over a decade of working with the biggest mobile companies and commercializing technologies on flagship Samsung smartphones & wearables and especially the Samsung Health platform, I wanted to start focusing on one of the biggest problems in healthcare today, which is patients missing medications.

What I kept seeing in the mobile domain was reminder apps, but they were not making a dent on poor adherence. I learned there were a lot of reasons behind this, but the biggest one was that it just didn’t make sense to ask a non-adherent person to suddenly be adherent with an app. Something more clever and context-aware had to be created.

We sat down together with my two co-founders and started to wonder why pills couldn’t be tracked like steps or activities, in a similar philosophy to fitness trackers and other wearables. This lead us to think about how medication could be tracked when it’s taken from the packaging. There was already plenty of innovation with pill bottles, but the majority — about 70–80% — of solid drugs globally come in blisters and that was virtually an open field.

After some heavy brainstorming we had a eureka moment and invented a novel way to track how pills are consumed. We had a prototype ready quite quickly and then started to focus on building the team. Investors really loved the solution and last summer (2017) we raised a seed round of $1.4M to kick things off.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One thing that comes to mind is that there are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about how medication works. This example is certainly more interesting than funny, but if we take a look at birth control pills the common misconception is that the pill is practically 100% effective all the time.

That indeed is the case if you take pills perfectly, without missing a dose. However in typical use when pills are missed here and there, the rate of effectiveness drops by 9% to 91%. This means 9 women out of 100 experience an unwanted pregnancy, even though they are on the pill.

This is something the doctor normally should underline when first prescribing oral contraceptives to a patient, but for some reason the importance of consistency is not common knowledge. Surprisingly, about 60% of women who are on the pill are not aware of this fact according to our research at Popit.

Through our blog we’ve now educated over 120 000 women about the importance of consistent pill use. With these numbers it’s probably safe to say that we may have even prevented a few unwanted pregnancies.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We just published the results from our first clinical pilot study and they were superb. Popit was able to reduce the number of missed pills by over 80%. We also saw patients become much more consistent with pill-taking and forming the habit of taking medication on time. Consistency and habit-forming are really crucial for better adherence.

Thanks to results like these, within our short existence we’ve already gotten the interest of nearly all major pharmaceutical companies and are preparing a major pilot with a leading company in the industry. We were also recently selected as the Best Medication Adherence Solutions Provider in Finland by an international media organization.

What makes our approach unique is that our addressable market is well over a billion patients because the tracker device doesn’t require modifications to the pill package. You can simply clip one on to your pill pack and start using it.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

At Popit we’re constantly looking for ways how to better quantify medication and make it digital. There are a lot of opportunities to leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning as we are moving towards more outcome-driven healthcare. Real-world evidence is becoming increasingly important and data is at the heart of it. Popit is at the intersection of these trends.

Another interesting opportunity lies with detecting counterfeit medications. In Europe the wheels are already turning to establish a pan-European system to eradicate fake meds from the supply chain. By making it easy for patients to distinguish authentic medications from the counterfeit ones, you also maintain the patients’ trust in the healthcare system. This area is ripe for innovation and I’m sure we will be seeing new innovation soon there as well.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Talk to your customers as early as possible and find out what they think is valuable. The answer might surprise you. Most important of all, this information is not always readily available so keep asking questions and keep digging for the motivations. This will help you get a better grasp of your industry quicker and build a better product.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I am very grateful to my family. As everyone in a startup knows, you don’t really count hours when kicking things off the ground and working pretty much all the time. You need to be able to relax with the people you love.

I also think we have a hugely talented team and I feel grateful that I get to work with each one of them. We learn new things together every day and it’s been a great experience!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Every year over 300 000 people die in the EU and US because of poor medication adherence. By improving the situation even a bit I’d say we’ve made our mark. Since 50% of patients are not taking their medication like they should, there certainly is a lot of ground to cover.

Can you share the top five ways that technology is changing the experience of going to the doctor. 

Internet Of Pills

Medication is becoming connected and we’re starting to see the Internet of Pills. There are different methods already available to track medication consumption from syringes, bottles, blisters and respirators. If needed, the doctor will know how you have been taking your medications.

It is not reasonable to assume all medical professionals would want to know in detail how you have been taking your medication. Instead the information will need to be available at a glance when the need arises. This is one of the things we are working on at Popit.

Predictive Interventions

By gathering enough information on non-adherence and the factors that lead into it, it will be possible to predict with high accuracy who and when is at risk of missing their medications. Automated interventions such as calls, SMSs or contacting their loved ones can be leveraged to support the patient in staying adherent.

In some parts predictive interventions are already achievable, but the accuracy and scale are not ready for mainstream. Once the technology is more mature, it will reduce burden on the healthcare system by cutting avoidable hospitalizations arising from non-adherence. According to some estimates that share can be as high as 20% of all hospitalizations.

The Digital Patient Journey

The patient’s healthcare experience as a whole is becoming increasingly important and technology is used for optimizing and streamlining it to bring out the best in customer satisfaction and operational efficiency. As an example, Buddy Healthcare is providing pre and post surgery instructions and care information right onto the patient’s smartphone to make sure everything goes smoothly.

Shift To Value

Because of soaring costs the healthcare focus has already shifted to providing value. The goal is to get better treatment for patients at a lower cost. But it’s not only about the patients. Also healthcare providers stand to gain when patient engagement becomes higher and efficiencies rise through a value-based focus.

Value needs to be proven through data. This real-world evidence is what Popit can gather through the smart pill tracking solution.

Consumerization Of Diagnostics

Diagnostics has traditionally been a field for highly specialized companies, but the ubiquity of the smartphone and its accessories including wearables are bringing a generation of good-enough, or sometimes even medical grade diagnostics tools to the home.

Of course patients have always had solutions to diagnose conditions at home, but what is changing is that the solutions are becoming more accurate and as a result can function as part of the treatment chain.

For example Etsimo uses artificial intelligence to pre-screen patients for hospitals, Otometri allows consumers to diagnose ear infection in seconds, and StethoMe has a solution to analyse your child’s respiratory condition at home.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

The secret of getting ahead is getting started (Mark Twain).

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

I’d love to have a chat with Ray Kurzweil and Tim Ferriss. Kurzweil has a tremendous legacy which spans across many disciplines and I’m sure a discussion with him would lead to new profound insights. Tim Ferriss on the other hand is a fearless experimentor who has been an inspiration through his relentless pursuit of understanding how the human body works. If I would get these two gentlemen to sit down with me for an hour, I’m sure interesting discussions would ensue.

Jilea Hemmings CEO & Co-Founder of Best Tyme. She is running a series on how technology is impacting healthcare.

Originally published at

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