September 10th, 2010
10:33 AM ET

Identify pills with new NIH web tool

Poison control centers get more than 1 million calls a year about medicines that need to be identified. And maybe you've been in situations when pills seem to wander away from their labeled bottles, and you don't know what they are.

Now the National Institutes of Health is developing a way to quickly identify medications based on appearance. Pillbox, in its beta testing phase, gives possibilities for your mystery pill based on its shape, color, size, imprint, and "scoring" (how many pieces it could be broken into based on those little lines).

There's also an advanced search so you can go the other way: Search for a drug and see what it's supposed to look like. At this early stage, though, there are plenty of listings that don't have images. Pillbox has 10,562 records, but only 912 currently have images, the website says. The National Library of Medicine and the Food and Drug Administration are working on photographing more pills.

Pillbox has more uses than pill identification, said David Hale, developer of the NIH’s web tool.  He said it’s been used to teach pharmaceutical students, to list inactive ingredients in pills that people might have sensitivity or allergies to and to help law enforcement.

Hale made an announcement this week at the Gov 2.0 summit that new data were now available on Pillbox and that it was also giving access to tech developers to innovate ways to use the data. Pharmaceutical companies were invited to send samples of their drugs so more images could be placed into the system.

This tool is still under development and not intended for clinical use, the NIH warns.

Hale said Pillbox was released with the disclaimer to make sure “everyone is involved in the conversation and all stakeholders are validating the process in an open and transparent way.”

Here's more on how it was created from Mashable. It is intended for emergency responders, poison control centers, health care professionals, and everyone else.

Call the national Poison Help hotline at 1-800-222-1222 if you suspect a poisoning emergency.

soundoff (70 Responses)
  1. Michael

    Umm...drugs.com has had this function for at least a year, if not longer, with a huge image database. Maybe they should look over there and collaborate with them?

    September 10, 2010 at 12:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Captain Obvious

      At least 5 years @ drugs.com. Also, a google search for "pill identification" will return many relevant links. Great use of time and money NIH.

      September 10, 2010 at 15:21 | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      drugs.com has been doing this for maybe 7 or 8 years...if the NIH had bothered to look at Google, we could have saved us (the taxpayers) some money. They dropped the ball on this one.

      September 10, 2010 at 18:59 | Report abuse |

      Uh, I have been doing this for years with just google... but I consider myself smarter than most and know how to find ANYTHING I ever wanted on google. just type into google the word PILL followed by the number on the pill or its shape and colors. 99 out of 100 times the correct info for the pill and a picture comes up. I wish people would learn how to use the internet better, google is SO easy yet most people suck at it

      September 11, 2010 at 15:59 | Report abuse |
    • JJJSmith

      JJSmith – Wow you're so smart. You know how to use google? You should google illusory superiority.

      September 12, 2010 at 11:49 | Report abuse |
    • peehook

      Hell, WebMD has had this for a long Time !!!!!!

      September 12, 2010 at 18:39 | Report abuse |
    • Chris R

      At the moment collaberating with them isn't really the goal of this project. In fact, this search tool isn't even the main focus of what the NIH is trying to to. It's mostly, to me at least, is a proof of concept application used to show off the underlying API and dataset. It also worth pointing out that the dataset and the API are free and open to the public. This means that any other developer can come in and use this data to make their own applications without paying license fees which may help spur innovation.

      September 13, 2010 at 08:53 | Report abuse |
  2. bbincpca

    The article should have mentioned that the URL was http://pillbox.nlm.nih.gov/, but since this is a CNN post I will overlook the omission.

    The NIH needs to go back to the drawing board. According to the system E72 is 50mg Acarbose tablets, but my pharmacist says it is 20 mg Lovastatin tablets. This error makes me wonder how useful the system will be to caregivers.

    September 10, 2010 at 19:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Chris R

      That is because 'E72' is Acarbose. If you search 'E 72' then you would have found the Lovastatin. If you go back and look at your pill the E is above the 72 which kind of indicates a space between the letter and numbers.

      September 13, 2010 at 08:38 | Report abuse |
  3. weekendwilly

    @bbincpca – lovastatin 20mg is blue, acarbose is white.. Each has a variation that has the E72 imprint. The imprint alone is not enough to identify the pill, if it was this entire system would not be needed. If your pharmacist is telling you that a white E72 is lovastatin – better find a new pharmacist.

    September 11, 2010 at 02:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Renee

    Some pills are labeled with the name of the drug. Why aren't all pills marked with the name of the drug?

    September 11, 2010 at 07:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ray Cassick

      Because some pills are way too small to print the entire name... I have seen pills (a few I take for my treatment) that are oblong shaped and less than 3×4 mm. They can barely get a number on there let along the entire name (that is 11 letters long by the way). Personally I think all pills should be a minimum size, or at very least mandated to be all capsules so they can be identified. I am a huge proponent for bar codes to identify drugs.

      September 11, 2010 at 11:58 | Report abuse |
    • Miss_Info

      Think about it. First consider that medications may be identified by the IMPRINT, COLOR, and SHAPE, including tablet or capsule etc.
      Now keep in mind that medications that are imprinted with a name it is usually the BRAND name. For the majority of medications, which are generics, they obviously can NOT use the brand name. The actual generic drug name by comparison is usually very long, and then there is strength to take into account as many drugs come in a wide variety of strengths – as has already been posted, a lot to imprint on a small pill.
      So all in all, we have a good system to identify pills when you take into account the imprint, color, and shape. Now I do know and hasten to add that for those taking a number of medications, often it can be very confusing when taking a number of similar looking pills. As Ray Cassick mentions, this is why other methods of identifying pills, including bar codes and RFID, are being tested and used in some cases.
      And now many pharmacies print the identifying information on the container in addition to be on the included information. Also accurate identification information is readily available on the Web today (read other posts for more information).

      September 13, 2010 at 01:28 | Report abuse |

    Uh, I have been doing this for years with google... just type into google PILL followed by the number on the pill. 99 out of 100 times the correct info for the pill and a picture comes up. I wish people would learn how to use the internet better, google is SO easy yet most people suck at it

    September 11, 2010 at 15:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. ehhh_no_way

    Ha! I like the sentence : "Pharmaceutical companies were invited to send samples of their drugs so more images could be placed into the system." Sure... so they can take pictures of them! Send them to me. I will take pictures for you too! Ha!

    September 11, 2010 at 22:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Miss_Info

    Duh. This is so old, and has already been done extremely well.
    drugs.com's pill identifier - http://www.drugs.com/imprints.php - and other Web sites have been doing accurate medication identification in both directions – markings (imprint/shape/color) or drug name – for most medications for many years! They have a very large and up-to-date data base with pictures!
    Another WASTE of tax payer money by our incredibly inefficient government! What ever happened to partnering with and/or learning from others with expertise? Used to be done all the time. Why re-invent the wheel.

    September 13, 2010 at 00:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Chris R

      Because the interface at drugs.com is pathetically old and barely functional? Because the NIH is actually providing more in depth information? And most importantly because NIH is making the API public so anyone can build new applications off of the same data and search functionality. Why don't you take a look at the FAQ to see where the NIH is going with this?

      September 13, 2010 at 08:46 | Report abuse |
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