An Easy Pill to Swallow

David Hale takes a Silicon Valley approach to ramping up a computer reference guide for drug-related emergencies.

Ask David Hale at the National Institutes of Health what makes him most proud about the creation of Pillbox, a computer program that can help emergency physicians and other health care providers save lives, and he will tell you it is the interagency collaboration that has made the project possible.

Hale, who works for the National Library of Medicine, is project manager for Pillbox, which is still in the development stage. The program allows doctors to scan a database of photographs and descriptions to identify unknown substances in drug-related cases. The idea resulted from meetings of the National Capital Poison Control Center, the Veterans Affairs Department and NIH.

The Food and Drug Administration also plays a large role in the development of Pillbox, Hale says, by establishing standards for high-resolution drug imaging.

Hale says he took design and development cues from Silicon Valley startup companies to make the project publicly available as soon as possible, launching it in beta mode in 2009.

"We let the public be a part of the development process, instead of keeping it hidden and sequestered," he says. "It's not new, but maybe it's new for government."

Up next in the pipeline is a mobile version of Pillbox, but first there are some hurdles to cross. "As long as we're in beta we can't release the iPhone version," Hale says.

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