NIH Pillbox prototype is easy to digest

User-centered design of Web-based resource for clinical and toxicology data about pharmaceuticals proves popular

The National Library of Medicine’s Pillbox online system for pill identification initially was designed to help poison control centers identify pills, but it has expanded to be a resource for medical personnel, law enforcement and the public, said David Hale, social media strategist for the national library and Pillbox project manager.

The Pillbox Web site, which is a beta version and not yet approved for clinical use, offers photographs and descriptions to help people identify thousands of different medicines in pill form. The data is linked with the Food and Drug Administration’s pharmaceutical databases to show which of the pills are toxic and describe their clinical uses, among other goals.

“We have had more than 4,000 visitors from more than 40 countries,” Hale said at a health care and social media networking event Jan. 26 in Silver Spring, Md., sponsored by Aquilent Inc.

That was for the opening weekend in September. Since then, the site has logged 27,000 unique visitors from 117 countries, Hale said. He attributes Pillbox’s success thus far to a “user-centered design.”

The Pillbox Web site debuted in beta version in September 2009, and has been informally termed a “Physician’s Desk Reference on steroids.” It initially offered 779 high-resolution photographs and 5,693 descriptions of pill-form prescription drug medications. The photos show detailed markings on the pills to aid in quick reference and identification. Additional photographs have been added in recent months.

Development of Pillbox involved consulting with experts in many areas, establishing a user-friendly platform, allowing multiple people to assume lead roles in the project, and use of social media to promote the project, Hale said.

Hale has promoted the project on YouTube and in other social media formats. Visitor feedback “has given us information that would have cost thousands [of dollars] in focus groups,” Hale said at the event.

Although Pillbox currently has a disclaimer saying it is not intended for clinical use, additional images are being verified for inclusion and once that process is completed, it will be allowed for clinical use, according to a statement on the Web site.

One of the long-term goals of Pillbox is the development of a software that allows the images to be searched by standardized values, such as shape, size or color. This will help users identify unknown pills more accurately.

The National Library of Medicine is involved in a number of health IT projects, including a recent release of a draft mapping tool for clinical terms.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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