Many people forget to take their prescribed medications and wind up at risk of serious illness.

Dr. Rajiv Shah, a physician and founder of the Minneapolis tech firm MyMeds, wants to use a little psychology and a smartphone app to gently nudge patients to take their pills.

“This is considered one of the biggest problems in health care today,” said Shah, 41, who juggles his work as a full-time kidney specialist at Intermed Consultants in Edina with being the CEO of MyMeds.

Researchers agree. Failure to take prescribed medications, either accidentally or deliberately, “causes approximately 33 percent to 69 percent of medication-related hospitalizations and accounts for $100 billion in annual [U.S.] health care costs,” a group of University of Arkansas researchers said in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association this year. Others estimate such costs at as much as $300 billion.

The Arkansas researchers said that about half of all U.S. patients taking prescription drugs for chronic diseases don’t take them as prescribed.

The same study said that smartphone apps could help change today’s dismal pill-taking behavior. It named MyMeds and two other competing apps, MyMedSchedule and RxmindMe (neither from the Twin Cities), as the best of 160 apps available.

MyMeds, a three-employee start-up, deals with the problem via an app — available for Apple or Android phones and tablets — that is used in conjunction with a website, The service costs $9.99 a year.

Via the app and website, the MyMeds service reminds people to take their medications while at the same time reinforcing the reason they are needed, a bit of psychology designed to reduce the number of missed doses. Shah has an undergraduate degree in cognitive psychology from Boston University in addition to his medical degree from the University of Minnesota.

For example, consumers can set up medication-taking reminders that will arrive via smartphone text, e-mail or alarm. A reminder to take lisinopril, for instance, says that it lowers blood pressure to prevent strokes. Shah said that attaching importance to a drug makes a patient more likely to take it.

Sharing information online with care providers

At the same time, MyMeds takes an almost social-media approach to health care. Through the app or website, patients can share their medication lists and pill-taking routines with nurses, pharmacists or other caregivers. That can result in some give-and-take about the medications and whether they’re being taken as directed. The information being viewed actually resides in an online server that complies with federal medical-privacy requirements, Shah said.

While the service is available to anyone, Shah believes the main customers will be corporations and insurance companies that want to offer wellness programs. Such programs typically give corporate employees financial incentives, such as reduced medical plan premiums, to be healthier. Users of MyMeds can accumulate points for taking their medications or learning more about the drugs they take. Employers or insurance companies could, after tallying an employee's MyMeds points, offer discounts on premiums or other rewards, Shah said, though MyMeds hasn't signed up any firms to do that yet.

“Historically, wellness plans were about keeping healthy people healthy,” Shah said. “But, the truth is, it’s the 20 percent of the people with chronic diseases that make up 80 percent of the medical expenses. We help target those people and keep them healthy.”

Shah, who spent 12 years trying to bring the MyMeds concept to fruition, benefited from the help of Minnetonka medical venture capitalist Dr. Glen D. Nelson, a former surgeon and Medtronic executive who is a MyMeds investor and board member.

“I worked with Rajiv for several years to bring the idea forward,” Nelson said. “Like so many inexperienced entrepreneurs, it took him some time to get to a level where there was real potential for success. I was attracted to MyMeds because it fills a real need — there’s only about a 50 percent usage rate of prescribed medications.”

Another board member, Marilyn Speedie, the dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Pharmacy, said she was interested because MyMeds helps pharmacists. It acts as a repository for a patient’s complete medical record (patient records typically are scattered in several locations) and it avoids privacy concerns by having the patient manage his or her own online medical record.

While Shah hired others to do the technical work of writing the app and building the website, starting and building a technology company, on top of being a full-time doctor, keeps him extraordinarily busy.

“There’s not a lot of sleep in my world,” Shah said. “And we’ve got 18-month-old twin girls on top of it.”