Newspapers in the United Kingdom have reported patients will soon be able to purchase “intelligent pills” that contain sensors to monitor their medication use. But what can these pills really do?

Since compliance with doctors’ instructions has been identified as a problem area in medicine, especially when patients are prescribed multiple drugs that may need to be taken at different times, Helius, the so-called “digital health product,” will include “sensor-enabled tablets” to monitor patients’ medication.

For the system, Helius maker Proteus Biomedical has designed sensors called “ingestible event markers,” which can be incorporated directly into medicines as part of the manufacturing process or embedded in a placebo to be taken alongside a medicine.

They’re activated by stomach acid and contain a tiny amount of copper and magnesium that creates a “voltage” used to power the device that creates the resultant signal. This signal can only be detected by a device attached to a patient’s skin, and will reveal heart rate, respiration and temperature, and how the patient responds to the medication. That data can then be sent to a mobile telephone.

Lloydspharmacy hopes to make the system, which will be marketed to people with chronic conditions, available in September.

It may sound terribly futuristic, but ingestible sensors have been around for quite a while. NASA developed ingestible thermometers in the 1980s to measure astronauts’ core temperatures — thermometers that have since been adopted by some athletes. And other researchers have created cameras in pills to get a look at the digestive system from the inside.

But Andrew Thompson, chief executive of Proteus, thinks Helius has new promise. “The most important and basic thing we can monitor is the actual physical use of [medication],” he said. “We have tested the system in hundreds of patients in many different therapeutic areas. It’s been tested in tuberculosis, in mental health, in heart failure, in hypertension and in diabetes.”