What could be handier? A new machine will dispense prepackaged prescription meds at home, while at the same time allowing the elderly patient to video chat with family and medical staff.

A Burnsville company is partnering with Ecumen and Thrifty White Drug on a pilot project to do just that. Ōmcare has designed its Telemed System to help make sure older adults are taking their medications as prescribed -- at the right time, in the right way.

The Telemed device can hold 15 to 30 days worth of medication, which for the pilot project will be provided by Thrifty White Drug -- individually packaged and pre-slit for easy opening.

The three-way video system allows family or medical staff to call when it’s medication time, and to check in, chat a bit, and make sure the patient is taking the medicine as prescribed.

“It’s the first of its kind, it’s really innovative,” said Brett Anderson, Ecumen vice president of health and clinical services.

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An easy way to hold a ‘care conference’

The machine’s video conference capabilities allow physicians, pharmacists, care providers and family members to see and talk to the patient, and each other, three at a time.

“From an Ecumen standpoint, it’s very important to have that (three-way) connection,” Anderson said. “So many times, we need to communicate with families about their loved ones -- we call it a care conference.”

The device will also allow patients an easy way to connect with family or friends just to video chat. That, too, can improve health, said Lisa Lavin, founder and CEO of Ōmcare.

“Often as people age they become isolated and disconnected from family, friends and activity in general. That kind of isolation is equivalent to 15 cigarettes a day,” she said.

The system could also help solve the growing problem of a booming elderly population and a flatlining number of home health workers, “which isn’t growing as fast as the number of people that need care,” Lavin said.

The Telemed System requires WiFi Internet in the home, and the device is expected to be priced around $800 a unit, along with a monthly Netflix-type fee, Lavin said. A provider such as Ecumen could buy the devices and incorporate them into their home health systems, she said. “It’s not just medication, but other home care,” she said. “Their biostatus can be tracked through an omnicare-type system.”

Ecumen Home Care lists medication management among its services, which can also include housekeeping, bathing and grooming assistance, shopping and other services.

“We’re quite focused on quality of care and providing access to services, while making sure they’re affordable or even reducing the cost,” Anderson said.

So who needs prepackaged meds?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people live longer, healthier lives when they take their medication as prescribed, but only 56% do on a regular basis, according to the results of a year-long Omnicell study reported in Pharmacy Times.

Prepackaged meds tailored to individual patients are easy to take properly, and those who got them “reached 90% adherence rates by the conclusion of the trial,” according to Pharmacy Times. “ By contrast, patients assigned to the pill bottle-only group reached a maximum adherence rate of 56% by the study’s end.”

The CDC says there are a lot of reasons people don’t take their meds as prescribed: They forget to take them or forget to get refills, don’t understand doses or schedules, can’t afford them, worry about the side effects, don’t believe they’ll work as advertised, are too depressed or have impaired cognition from aging, disease or addiction.

Whatever the reasons, the results aren’t good: The CDC estimates that direct health care costs associated with nonadherence is $100 to $300 billion annually in the United States.

That’s why Lavin is so hopeful about her company’s Telemed System.

“By combining remote care via video technology with the convenience of multi-dose packaging,” she said, “we hope to demonstrate that this approach can save money while improving patient outcomes and the caregiving experience.”

Lisa Lavin
Lisa Lavin

Pilot project starts next year

The pilot will launch in early next year at select Ecumen assisted living communities in Minnesota. It’s not yet clear if Detroit Lakes will be among them, since the details are still being worked out, Anderson said.

“We had our first big kickoff (Nov. 12) with all teams working on the pilot project,” he said. “We’re now in the finalization stage of the pilot plan for next year … if you look at the project, we’re excited about it.”

Thrifty white is also excited about it. “Our partnership with Ōmcare and Ecumen will allow us to help patients maintain independence as long as possible, while supporting the concept of aging in place in a way that has never been done,” said Tim Weippert, chief operating officer of Thrifty White. “Because medication adherence is one of the primary needs of our aging population, technology like the Ōmcare system can promote healthy outcomes and quality of life for patients and caregivers.”

As part of the pilot, residents who currently receive door-delivered medication assistance will instead receive medication assistance from their caregivers via the Telemed System.

Unusual origins

The Telemed System includes a security procedure, protected by password, PIN and key, to keep the prescription meds secure. Only authorized people can access the meds or reload the device.

The idea for the Telemed system came from the company’s earlier product, PetChatz, billed as “digital day care for the home-alone pet,” a device that lets pet owners check in with their animals by video chat at home, and dispenses a pet treat as a training aid to keep the pets coming back.

That platform has been around for eight years and has been tweaked and improved to the point where Lavin is confident that the new Telemed System will be reliable.

“There are not a lot of failure points,” she said. “We feel pretty good about it.”

She said the plan has always been to redesign PetChatz technology, which has been available to the public since 2014, for human healthcare and medication.

“It gave us a way to develop the technology, test it in-market and work out the bugs,” Lavin said.