Diabetes is a prevalent illness. The World Health Organization reports that the number of people affected by diabetes “has risen from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014.” Medical technology companies are privy to the market opportunity behind this disease, and are racing to create affordable, easy-to-use wearables for diabetics to better manage their care. Namely, there have been numerous efforts to perfect a variety of devices in this ecosystem, including in tracking blood sugar patterns, general lifestyle management, and even in customized medication management. The race and standards are the same as with any endeavor that involves healthcare hardware: build a product which is as non-invasive as possible, accurate, affordable, scalable to the public masses, and most importantly, is valuable to both physicians and patients alike. Market economics of medical devices aside, if these devices indeed deliver results as promised, the sheer value of the data they can provide to physicians and patients is incredible.
Traditional blood glucose monitoring kit.
One of the most important applications is continuous and long-term blood sugar monitoring. To accurately gauge a patient’s diabetes status, physicians often use the Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), a test that provides a summary of a patient’s blood sugars over a 3 month time period. This information is valuable as it distinguishes momentary anomalies in blood sugar spikes from true, long term patterns. While this test has been the gold standard for diagnosing diabetes, wearable technology that offers continuous blood sugar monitoring and can drill down to weekly, daily, or even hourly blood sugar patterns would be a significant addition to the standard blood HbA1c test. This is because variables such as a patient’s blood sugar highs and lows during a given day, how a patient’s sugar levels change after a taking a certain dose of medication, or even how blood sugar levels change during sleep, are all extremely important factors that physicians must deal with on a daily basis. The ideal medical management of diabetes is based on finding the perfect balance of medication to keep the patient’s blood sugar in the perfect range: if the blood sugar is too high, there are significant risks of vascular complications, such as vision problems and kidney disease; if the blood sugar is too low, it can lead to morbid outcomes, including fainting, seizures, or even death. Therefore, these devices can significantly improve a physician’s efforts in providing the perfect combination of medication to keep patients at a stable blood sugar rate and prevent long term complications.
Traditional continuous insulin pump.
Further recognizing the importance of this constant balance in maximizing patient quality of life, device makers have recently started venturing into another area: creating “Closed Loop Systems” that can essentially monitor a patient’s blood sugar levels real-time and modify medication delivery accordingly. Traditional diabetic management for those with severe disease has entailed the use of insulin pumps, which deliver a steady rate of medication to control blood sugar levels. With these traditional pumps, a patient can manually change the level of medication injected: if he/she expects to have an especially sugar/ carbohydrate rich meal, an increased level of medication can be delivered to maintain steady blood sugar levels. The development of recent closed loop technology is a promising step in automating this process. These systems can use sensors to continuously monitor sugar values based on real-time variables, including food intake, exercise, and activity level, and automatically change the amount of medication delivered according to the given situation. The value behind this real-time monitoring is immense, as it can curate the delivery of insulin according to a patient’s unique situation. Once perfected, these systems can potentially ease the difficulties that diabetics face on a daily basis in trying to monitor their own blood sugar and manually titrating their insulin regimen accordingly.
Device makers are also attempting to improve the lifestyle and behavioral aspects of diabetes management. Famous medical device maker Medtronic recently purchased Klue, a startup which focuses on behavior tracking software. Specifically, “Klue has developed fine motor artificial intelligence software that can detect meals and provide insights into user eating behaviors. Because food consumption is intrinsically related to insulin requirements for people living with diabetes, the ability to automate meal identification along with the corresponding insulin delivery is an unmet need that could greatly simplify living with this disease.” This will potentially provide significant respite to diabetics in monitoring their lifestyle and dietary habits.
Ultimately, there is immense hope for technology to revolutionize diabetic care worldwide. As companies are continuing to invest heavily into research and development in this area, one thing is certain: organizations that can deliver convenient, less invasive, and agile methods for diabetics to better manage their disease will greatly alleviate the pains that are concomitant with this illness.