The age of Smart diabetes: How technology is helping diabetics gain greater control over their lives


When we think about diabetes, usually the first thing that springs to mind is food. Whether or not your diabetic friend will be able to eat the meal you’ve invited them over for. Or should you get special sweets for your child’s birthday party, so their friend with diabetes doesn’t feel left out? Often we forget about technology and how useful it’s become in making diabetics’ lives easier.

Most of us tend to be glued to our tablets and smartphones, but have you ever considered that for a Type 1 diabetic these gadgets can give us greater control over our lives? The gadgets now mean being able to keep a discreet eye on our blood sugars and in time we’ll be able to use them to communicate with our medical teams.

In the wealthier regions of the globe, modern technology is giving diabetics a new lease on life and it’s hoped a longer life span.

Earlier this month the World Health Organisation focused on diabetes in their World Health day campaign on April 7th. To mark the organisation’s birthday, they target a specific condition or disease each year, in the hopes of bringing global attention to it.

This year’s campaign brought home the stark reality that  422 million adults, or one in every 11, were recorded as living with diabetes in 2014. Of those, WHO says approximately 1.5 million die each year as a result of the treatable disease and in the case of Type 2 one that can often be prevented.

As someone who has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 27 years, I’ve witnessed first hand the dramatic developments in treating the disease by using modern technology. I was diagnosed in 1989, a time when it meant eating a regulated amount of food at set intervals every day, accompanied by a set number of injections and the same amount of insulin each time. It meant living under a military style regime or becoming seriously ill.

Fast forward to 2016 and computers provide a way of life not thought possible in 1989. We’ve heard about Smart Homes well now we’re living in an age of Smart Diabetes. Insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors are becoming more and more common. In some regions, newly diagnosed children with Type 1 diabetes are given the automatic option of bypassing daily injections and instead begin treatment with a pump. For me it’s also meant a significant improvement in my quality of life. Now while I keep a close eye on Apple’s iPhone upgrades, I eagerly wait for the HSE to approve the latest pump, in my case usually a purple one.

Image credit: AislingO'

The device, similar to a doctor’s beeper, provides a continuous flow of insulin, which the patient controls. While the technology behind the devices is complex, use of them is relatively simple. A patient will change the cannula connected to the pump on average every three days. Each time they have a meal they check their blood sugars, input this data and the amount of carbohydrate taken. The on board ‘wizard’ then takes over and works out how much additional insulin is required to cover the meal.

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Patients must wear the pump for a minimum of 23 hours a day and the continuous glucose monitor, which checks your blood sugars every couple of minutes, depending on the brand can last for six days at a time. As a result I’ve gotten used to being called a Borg, the Star Trek creations that ‘assimilate’ humans and others using advanced technology. (Admittedly when I was called this for the first time, it was off-putting, but I’ve found it a useful comparison over the years.)  

Insulin pumps now even have the ability to stop the flow of insulin when it detects that a patient’s blood sugars have fallen below a safe level, and will begin pumping again, once it’s deemed safe. Medtronic, one of global leaders in medical devices recently released a new pump in the United States that works with a smartphone app, meaning patients can take control and make adjustments, without their nosy neighbour noticing. It’s hoped that the app will be available in Ireland by 2017.

While the technological advances in the treatment of both forms of diabetes, but Type 1 in particular, has come on in leaps and bounds in the last decade, the disease is still a deadly one for much of the globe. It’s unfortunate but Dr Cherian Varghese  - manager of the WHO’s Noncommunicable Diseases unit  - says accurate statistics on the prevalence of Type 1 are difficult to come by. This, he says, is because recording systems are simply not in place and because in much of the developing world people die of the disease, before they’re diagnosed as having it.

Speaking to Newstalk, Dr Varghese says something like tech recycling campaigns, that take unwanted laptops and phones, reboot them, and donate them to needy school children, is needed in the diabetes arena. He says the cost of treating diabetes needs to be brought down urgently and a campaign of this type would help.  

Dr Varghese says developments in the technology used to treat Type 1 diabetes will always be welcomed, but access to it remains a major problem, one he says doesn’t look like abating in the near future.

Within the next decade it’s hope we’ll have a closed loop pump system that would require little to no input from the patient. For now this Borg will keep a close eye on the progress, and hope that in the meantime we might soon have a turquoise option.

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