After researching 22 pill dispensers and testing six, we think the GMS Med-e-lert Automatic Pill Dispenser is the best and simplest programmable pill dispenser available. It’s easy to load and about as simple to program as a VCR clock, and it has 28 trays with six possible schedules. It’s also lockable, so if necessary you can make sure that the person taking the medicine has access only to the prescribed dose.
The 28-day GMS Med-e-lert Automatic Pill Dispenser does everything a basic pill dispenser needs to do, without any extra features or complications to get in the way. The rotating-disc design is pretty common—we came across several variations of it in our research—and easy to comprehend. To load the device a caregiver needs only to lift the top, match up the necessary schedule ring to the cells, and load the prescribed medications. The Med-e-lert digital alarm clock is pretty easy to program, as long as you have read the instructions. Six calendar rings come with the device for a range of schedules from one dose a day for a month to six daily doses for four days. The Med-e-lert is also lockable to help prevent a patient from tampering with the device or accidentally taking pills out of rotation from the set schedule.
We found that the clock of the 31-day MedCenter System Monthly Pill Organizer was the easiest and most intuitive to program of any device we tested. If you can set a bedside alarm clock, you can set up this reminder device. However, you need to load the MedCenter’s pill trays, which each have their own plastic cover, individually, a task that can be a little arduous if you’re planning out a whole month. And you can’t individually lock the plastic pill caddies, which makes this model fine for a self-care situation or one where the patient is fully aware and not easily confused.
Several subscription services are available today, but so far we think the MedMinder Maya is the easiest to understand and operate right out of the box. The Maya tray, which is a little larger than a legal pad and about as thick as a hardcover thriller, is split into 28 individual cells. By lifting the front cover, a care provider can load all the trays at once quickly. The Maya, which is programmable through a Web interface, alerts the patient to take their medications with both an alarm and a blinking tray light that illuminates the correct dose. Caregivers can remotely monitor a patient’s dosing activity from anywhere in the world as long as they have Internet access.
For this initial article we spoke with Susan Ryan, senior director of The Green House Project, an alternative to nursing homes, and former geriatric-care nurse; Eldred Lee, a PhD student in materials science and engineering at Dartmouth College who studied pill dispenser design (PDF); and Sunny Linnebur, PharmD, professor at the University of Colorado Denver Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
We try to avoid leaning on experts from within the companies we’re researching. However, we found pill dispensers to be such a narrow field that there weren’t that many experts in device design who weren’t already employed by, or managing, the companies we were researching. So we spoke with Ripley Martin, the general manager of Philips Lifeline, and Eran Shavelsky, CEO of MedMinder, about their respective products and the complexities of managing any pharmacological care with a machine.
We found few meaningful reviews for these kinds of devices. It’s odd that interest in this topic isn’t higher, given the aging population in this country (adults over the age of 65 are predicted to make up roughly 16.6 percent of the US population by the year 2020), many of whom will require some kind of multiple-medication management.
Without the guidance of reviews, we scoured Amazon and geriatric-care websites to see what was popular and available. From that research, we pulled together a list of 22 devices for possible consideration. Quite a few were all from one company, E-pill, and oddly overpriced for what they were. We reached out to E-pill to ask about the price discrepancies, but the company didn’t respond to our requests. We eliminated those models.
After speaking with our experts, we narrowed our criteria to devices that were relatively inexpensive, easy to use, and suitable for a variety of possible care situations. While none of the devices we tested are perfect, they take some steps to help anyone manage a complex prescription regimen.
Simple pill boxes allow anyone to quickly organize their prescriptions for the week or month, depending on the size. They’re basic and handy, and they get the job done. However, adding a little digital technology to these boxes makes them even more useful. A so-called smart pill dispenser may audibly or visually alert a patient that they need to take their prescriptions. The dispenser can be tamperproof or lockable to avoid overdosing. More intricate designs incorporate SMS technology to alert the caregiver as to whether a prescription dose has or has not been taken in a certain window of time.
From the field of 22 possible candidates, we narrowed down the group to six models to test: the GMS Med-e-lert Automatic Pill Dispenser, MedCenter System Monthly Pill Organizer, MedMinder Maya, SammyLife Vita Caddy, MedReady 1700FL Medication Dispenser, and LiveFine Automatic Pill Dispenser.
To determine what made a good smart pill dispenser, we focused on usability for both the patient and, potentially, the caregiver. We considered:
We have tried our best, through expert interviews, to understand how a supervised patient might handle these devices.
Most of the dispensers we considered come with some kind of locking mechanism. A lock is helpful for a variety of situations—for a patient who may become confused and try to take more than their prescribed dose, say, or a family that wants to keep controlled substances locked away from certain family members. It’s important to note that there is a difference between “lockable” and “tamperproof.” We recommend a lockable dispenser as our top pick, but we found that most tamperproof dispensers were too expensive and specific to recommend for everyone.
I tried to test these devices as if I had purchased them myself for a complex prescription regimen. I wanted to see how far I could get programming a schedule without relying on instructions, to get a feel for how intuitive each device was. Instead of drugs, I filled each device with Skittles and stuck to strict candy doses throughout the day: red in the morning, yellow in the afternoon, purple and green at night. While four Skittles a day may somewhat underrepresent the average American medication-regimen complexity for most patients, the simple schedule helped me get a feel for using each device.
What I found is that none of these devices are perfect. They can be difficult to load but simple to use once loaded, or they can be easy to load but somewhat tricky to program without instructions.
The GMS Med-e-lert Automatic Pill Dispenser is a standard automated disc pill dispenser made up of 28 individual trays. A lid covers the entire device, with one open slot for delivery. As the device turns along its schedule, it moves a tray prefilled with medicine into the delivery slot and triggers a flashing light and alarm. The alarm sounds for 30 minutes or until you dispense the medications by turning the device over. While not exactly a pleasant sound, the alarm will get your attention even if you’re in another room. If the Med-e-lert isn’t available, the LiveFine Automatic Pill Dispenser is a good alternative: The LiveFine is currently a little more expensive, but other than the branding, it’s an identical device.
Each slot holds up to 18 aspirin-sized pills, which is on the higher end of capacity for these devices (two other dispensers we tested also held 18 pills per tray, and two held 20). While every situation is different, after talking to our experts, we think anything that can hold a maximum of 16 to 20 pills per tray should offer plenty of room for most people. Unlike with our other two picks, with the Med-e-lert a patient doesn’t need to pry open a tray lid to access their medicine. However, they do need enough dexterity to turn the device over to catch the pills in their hand or on a tray.
The Med-e-lert dispenser comes with six swappable schedule discs so you can organize from one dose per day to six doses per day. It all sounds a bit complicated at first, but in practice it’s easy enough.
The Med-e-lert is lockable, and it works with either a solid or transparent faceplate, a good option to have. Some patients may like seeing which pills they have coming up to help them keep track of where they are on their schedule, whereas others may find a full array of visible pills more confusing.
The Med-e-lert comes with a one-year limited warranty. We haven’t evaluated the coverage and customer service ourselves, but a check of the Amazon reviews didn’t reveal too many complaints about refunds.
One Amazon reviewer notes that the Med-e-lert is not water resistant, relating a story where the reviewer’s father, who had dementia and Parkinson’s disease, spilled water on the device and ruined the medication inside. It’s a very strange oversight for a device designed to be handled by the elderly, many of whom will likely have water nearby to facilitate pill swallowing.
While the alarm system is simple to figure out (assuming you’ve read the instructions), the three-button interface and VCR-style digital display are not as intuitive or easy to use as they could be. Thankfully, the majority of people will have to program it only a few times at most, but if your prescription schedule is likely to fluctuate at all, the spartan clock interface may feel like a burden. The large Med-e-lert dispenser is also not portable; it’s made for someone who takes their medication at home.
Fundamentally, the MedCenter System Monthly Pill Organizer is an organizer for generic plastic pill boxes similar to what you might find at a CVS pharmacy. That’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s utterly simple to use, but it requires more actions for daily management than our main pick. We wouldn’t recommend this model for any care situation where the patient easily becomes confused or forgetful.
The MedCenter System is made up of 31 boxes, each of which has four labeled chambers: Morning, Noon, Evening, and Night. On either side of these boxes, the number of the day is printed, once in red and once in green. At the beginning of the month, you fill all the boxes with pills and stand them with the green number facing up. As you go through each day, you flip each box over to mark it as empty. Individually, each tray takes about as much force to open as a flip cap of toothpaste; it’s not difficult to do, but it does require some dexterity.
It’s no fun to load up each of these trays for the upcoming month (opening more than 120 flip tabs and counting out medicine is a chore), but if you find yourself needing to manage a fairly arduous prescription schedule, this is an effective, inexpensive, and easy-to-manage option. The individual pocket-sized cases are also handy if you need to leave the house and can manage without the alarm while you’re out and about.
That said, the included talking alarm clock that tells you when to medicate is the simplest clock to program that we tested. We found it intuitive to work with right out of the box, and about as complicated as any clock you might find on a bedside table. The large primary-color buttons were also easy to read and differentiate even in low light. The scripted digital voice of the alarm, which declares “Please take your morning pills for the 20th” (or whatever time and day), is far more pleasant to the ear than our top pick’s alert.
According to MedMinder, the Internet-connected MedMinder Maya was made to help caregivers who need a way to remotely or intermittently manage a loved one’s medicines. This Internet-connected device takes a lot of the guesswork out of monitoring someone’s medication adherence. The Maya comes with a built-in SIM card that connects the device to MedMinder’s website; this connectivity allows the caregiver to remotely manage the Maya’s schedule and note when a patient is alerted to take their prescription, as well as to monitor whether they’ve removed the pills from the Maya and to see their dosage activity. You have no need to connect the device to any existing infrastructure in the patient’s home, such as a wireless network or phone line—all the Maya needs to work is a power outlet.
All of this doesn’t necessarily ensure that the patient has consumed the pills, only that the patient has lifted them from the Maya tray. That’s a tricky part of patient adherence that none of our tested devices have solved yet. However, some devices on the horizon are attempting to address the issue.
The Maya is built to look like a common pill box with a removable cover that gives access to every slot. Once each tray is loaded with medication and the patient’s schedule is set, the Maya lights up the appropriate compartment while also prompting the patient with an auditory cue similar to that of an office intercom—and, if you like, optional phone calls, text messages, and emails. The machine logs all tray activity, which a family member may check at any time, or the machine can summarize the activity and send it as a weekly email report.
MedMinder also offers a mail-order medication service, which centralizes your prescriptions at a single pharmacy for the cost of your pharmacy co-pay. The MedMinder pharmacy sends a prefilled tray, which slots easily into the Maya. The pharmacy checks the schedule against doctor’s notes, flags any possible drug-to-drug interactions, and programs the patient’s Maya with the correct schedule. MedMinder is currently licensed as a pharmacy in only 25 states, but the company told us it expects to be in all 50 states in the next six months. The service may be helpful to anyone who is nervous about making errors while filling trays, or skittish about managing possible drug interactions for themselves or family members.
However, unlike our other picks, the Maya is a subscription service and currently costs $40 per month. MedMinder also makes a locking version of its pill dispenser, called Jon, which costs $60 per month. You can also pair both pill dispensers with a Medical Alert device managed by MedMinder for a small fee. There is no contract: Once you’re finished with the device, you cancel your subscription and send everything back to MedMinder.
Several companies are attempting to solve the broader complexities of prescription management and patient monitoring with new devices. While these options are outside of the scope of this version of our review, we’re interested in exploring them for a future update.
Philips Lifeline produces the subscription-based Automated Medication Dispensing Service. While this dispenser has been around for about a decade now, we didn’t include it in our initial testing because Philips Lifeline is coming out with an updated version soon; we will update this guide once we’ve had a chance to check it out. While we think that the MedMinder subscription service is easier and more intuitive for most people right out of the box, Philips Lifeline’s planned Internet of Things integration, smart monitoring, and general industry clout make this dispenser an intriguing model to watch.
Additionally, we’d like to take a closer look at the Livi and Hero pill dispensers. Both companies attempt to address the issue of human sorting error by loading your prescriptions into bulk canisters and then using the machine to dispense your doses according to a programmed schedule. They’re both attractive-looking devices, especially the Hero, and they seem to be on the forefront of this kind of smart pill dispenser design. The Livi comes via a subscription service for $100 a month, and the Hero is available for a hefty $600 preorder. We hope to take a closer look at both models as they become more established.
The PillDrill Smart Medication Tracking System is a relatively new entrant in the smart pill dispenser scene. To use the system, the patient or caregiver must first organize the pills in the provided pill strips (which have RFID tags at the bottom of each container) or attach one of the provided RFID tags to each existing pill bottle. Then, using the PillDrill app, the patient or caregiver can send the patient’s medication routine to the PillDrill Hub, which will provide audio and visual alerts to inform the patient that they need to take their medication. Once the patient does so, they scan the RFID tag with the PillDrill, which sends updates about whether the scan has occurred to family members or any other listed parties. Although we recognize that these notifications will likely offer peace of mind for concerned relatives, we think the app and the RFID tags might make the PillDrill system a bit too complicated for some people. Plus, it’s more than double the price of our current pick.
Other new devices on the horizon are attempting to integrate dispenser functions with the ever-growing Internet of Things, linking prescription care and management with your smartphone and other health-monitoring devices.
PillPack: This pharmacy pill-delivery service prepacks your prescriptions into a roll of individual packets marked with a time and date. Tear the top pack from the roll at the allotted time, and it draws up the next pack into the dispenser window. The service is primarily beneficial to people who are in either a self-care situation, managing their own complex prescription schedule, or a live-in care situation, where a caregiver is directly managing a patient’s needs around the clock. While PillPack is not strictly a smart pill dispenser, as it has no alarm or app integration, we think it’s an interesting enough prescription-management option to warrant highlighting here.
SammyLife Vita Caddy: We appreciated the Vita Caddy’s Connect Four–like design and low cost, but its lack of any alarm or scheduling device prompted us to exclude it from this review. If you’re looking for a simple way to manage a personal schedule of pills or vitamins, however, this model is a decent low-cost option.
MedReady 1700FL Medication Dispenser: Similar to our top pick, this MedReady model uses a rotating-disc design that’s somewhat easy to program and use. However, this device costs twice as much as our top pick and looks unappealing with its institutional-gray cover. It does come with a rechargeable battery, but we don’t think that’s a good enough reason to pay so much extra for a pill dispenser.
E-pill MedTime Station: E-pill has a variety of dispensers, all of which we found to be overpriced. The MedTime Station, for example, is nearly $300 at this writing. It is a disc dispenser, similar in design to our top pick, mounted to a dispenser stand, which you secure to a table or other flat surface. It may be a suitable choice for anyone who has trouble lifting or extracting pills from any of our other picks.
E-pill Accutab: This low-profile seven-day scheduler doesn’t hold enough pills for us to consider it for this guide.
E-pill 4 Alarm Vibrating Pocket Pill Box: A vibrating pill box is a neat idea and might be useful for certain situations, but this E-pill model doesn’t carry enough daily doses for us to consider it within the scope of this review.
E-pill Portable Automatic Pill Dispenser: Similar to the 4 Alarm Vibrating Pocket Pill Box, this model offers another interesting portable design, which dispenses one or two medications up to 15 times per day. Unfortunately, similar to all E-pill devices, it comes with a hefty price tag.
E-pill Automatic Pill Dispenser Medication Organizer: This dispenser seems to match our top pick pretty closely in every way except price—the E-pill version is regularly around $500. It’s an outrageous sum for you (or anyone, even an insurance company) to pay for a rotating plastic disc with a digital clock.
E-pill Automatic Locked Pill Dispenser: This is another rotating-disc device. The company also sells a monitored version of this model that is SMS enabled. We think both are overpriced for what they do.
E-pill Tamper Resistant Automatic Pill Dispenser: Another overpriced—but very, very tamper resistant—rotating-disc dispenser from E-pill. This version seems like it was built for institutions or psychiatric wards that need to keep their medications under strict lock and key. It’s probably more than most home-care providers need.
Ennovea 14 Day Pill Planner: A calendar scheduler similar to the MedCenter System Monthly Pill Organizer, this model requires you to load each pill box separately and then program a central clock, which will alert you when it’s time to take your medication. We think our pick, with its more intuitive clock and pill-box design, is easier to program and simpler to keep track of than this Ennovea model.
Pixnor Automatic Pill Dispenser: This was the cheapest pill box with an alarm we found during our search. The Pixnor is made up of seven pill trays, so the overall scheduling is limited. We couldn’t find any positive reviews online.
(Photos by Caleigh Waldman.)