A New Kind Of Pillbox

One presentation at the U.S. Pharmacopeia meeting that particularly caught my attention on Tuesday was given by David Hale, a technical information specialist at the National Library of Medicine. He's been working on a project called Pillbox, which involves building a database of high-resolution images of pharmaceutical tablets and capsules combined with FDA-approved labeling information and making it all publicly available on the Internet. NLM released the site to the public today. If you pick up  a prescription and for some reason you're not sure you've been given the correct medication, you can search Pillbox by name to see what your pills or capsules should look like. Alternatively, if you're faced with an unknown medication, you can search according to five identifying criteria:
  1. any characters or numbers printed on the medication (its imprint)
  2. shape
  3. color
  4. size (for those not so familiar with millimeters, the program scales a sample tablet next to a U.S. dime)
  5. scoring (lines pressed into a tablet)
Since the FDA requires that no two pharmaceutical products have identical characteristics, you should be able to identify exactly what you have--or, if your child or pet vomits up a half-digested unknown, you can at least narrow down the candidates.

Pillbox - Erythromycin 01

The site has obvious uses for first responders, emergency physicians, and poison control centers. The search results link to resources such as the drug's package insert information and NLM's Drug Information Portal, as well as any related information on sites such as MedlinePlus and ClinicalTrials.gov. NLM is also exploring pulling toxicological and emergency response information directly into Pillbox, Hale says. Pillbox could also be used to turn up counterfeit drugs, if the counterfeiters didn't bother to try to match the original pharmaceutical's characteristics. Or, counterfeiters could use the site as a resource. For that reason, the Pillbox team consulted with people at the FDA's Forensic Chemistry Center about how to minimize the risks. The feedback from the forensics experts was that as long as Pillbox stuck to imaging in the visible spectrum, used professional-consumer equipment, and only included standard FDA-approved labeling information, counterfeiters wouldn't be able to get any information that they can't already access fairly easily, Hale says. The images Pillbox has now came from medications that were photographed as part of a pilot project using the Department of Veterans Affairs formulary. NLM is now working on creating specifications for how to standardize the creation of photos, with an eye toward having manufacturers take the images themselves and submit them to FDA as part of a structured product label, at which point the images and label information could get funneled together into Pillbox. More information: A USP interview with Hale. Screenshot credit: David Hale

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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