September 18, 2015
Type 1 diabetes is a condition that affects more than one million Americans and more than 371 million people worldwide. While it is manageable, it still greatly impacts the lives of those with it, forcing changes in lifestyle, complicating what should be simple tasks, and even an increased mortality rate of more than five times higher than those unaffected by the disease.
Because of this, breakthroughs in treatment are absolutely vital in the quest for an eventual cure. Surprisingly, instead of these steps coming from new medicines, they have largely come in the form of new technology.
Mobile technology has drastically changed our world by greatly increasing portability and access to a wide variety of goods and services. With more than 50% of American adults owning smartphones, our world is more connected than previously possible. For diabetics and health care professionals, however, the new levels of communication brought by mobile tech has brought about much needed change. Over the last few years, a wide variety of mobile technology has been developed to aid in the management of diabetes.
As demonstrated by Jennifer Miller of The University of Florida’s Medication Therapy Management Program, there are now blood glucose meters available that connect directly into mobile devices. These meters can collect blood sugar data and transfer them through an app.
Being able to do this has the potential to completely change how diabetes management looks going forward. Medical visits for type 1 diabetes largely center more around the analysis of blood sugar data rather than a physical check up, which makes it a great candidate for the growing trend of remote patient monitoring. This increases patients’ access to healthcare professionals, and therefore makes their ability to make informed decisions much quicker and easier.
Smaller, Faster, Less Invasive
Across the board, technology has become smaller, faster, and more powerful. This is true of diabetes technology as well. Blood glucose monitors have followed suit, giving results in a fraction of the time of older models, using less blood, and coming in a smaller, more portable device.
Beyond the drastic improvements to existing technology, there have also been revelatory new inventions that are changing how diabetes is managed. Continuous glucose monitors are now making it possible for diabetics to constantly see their blood sugar levels and greatly reducing the amount of finger pricks necessary.
Google is even getting into the diabetes tech game. They are currently partnering with multiple medical companies on diabetes projects, the most shocking of which is their glucose measuring contact lens with Novartis.
Big Data is Changing Our Understanding of the Diabetes
The management of type 1 diabetes has always been heavily based on data collection and analysis. Patients measure their blood sugar, record them, then use the data to look at trends in order to make decisions about their management plans. Up until the late 1990s and early 2000s, this data was recorded manually by the patient in a logbook, then looked at by their doctor at visits. This changed when blood glucose monitors began having computer interfaces. Patients could plug their monitor into their computer and get a readout of the previous two weeks. This allowed both patients and doctors to more effectively look at trends and make decisions.
This view is still incredibly narrow, however. It gives small snapshots of a diabetic’s life and how different variables affect them, but fails to account for long-term trends. This model of diabetes care is also still largely dependent on face-to-face meetings during appointments, making it almost entirely reactionary, instead of preventative and intuitive.
However, this is now changing through efforts by tech companies like Glooko to integrate big data and analytics into diabetes care. By using mobile technology to collect larger amounts of in-depth data, patients and their doctors are better able to make correlations between low and high blood sugars and take steps to prevent them in the future. If a patient knows that after certain events, they typically experience hypoglycemia, they can use larger sets of data to look at what the root cause truly is, instead of going by trial and error, which might not fix the problem or cause different ones. While many people have been concerned about transmitting personal information this way, there have been great measures taken to ensure that it is safe and secure.
The Slow March Toward an Artificial Pancreas
The ultimate dream for every type 1 diabetic is to someday be cured. While there have been great advances in medical research to find ways to actually repair or replace a diabetic’s pancreas and fully cure diabetes, the most exciting breakthroughs have actually been through pieces of technology acting as a pancreas substitute. There are now insulin pumps with integrated abilities to communicate with a continuous glucose sensor that will react to blood sugar levels and automatically shut off if the continued flow of insulin would be dangerous to the pump wearer. This is a huge breakthrough in the treatment of diabetes, and has the potential to prevent serious medical issues and even death.
Regardless of the advances made in insulin pumps, they are still not doing the entire job of a pancreas. In a non-diabetic’s body, the pancreas does not only release insulin, but also another hormone called glucagon, which works inversely with insulin to raise blood sugars that are falling too low. Diabetes management has consisted of only using insulin as a means to keep blood sugar down, but new technological advancements are set to change that. Artificial pancreases, which monitor blood glucose and dispense both insulin and glucagon in a similar fashion to the real thing, are now being developed and tested with great success.
These will hopefully become available to patients in the coming years, and will certainly be the biggest step yet toward curing diabetes rather than just managing it.
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