Wearables and other connected devices have been available to help treat chronic conditions like asthma and heart disease for a while now. But thus far, the nation’s 30 million diabetics haven’t seen much to help them improve their health or reduce the daily grind of finger pricks and needle pokes.
The $2.5 billion connected-care industry may be off to a late start in diabetes, but it’s making up for lost time. A new breed of connected glucometers, insulin pumps and smartphone apps is hitting the market. They promise to make it easier for diabetics to manage the slow-progressing disease and keep them motivated with feedback and support.In as little as two years, the industry plans to take charge of the entire uncomfortable, time-consuming routine of checking and regulating blood-sugar levels with something called an artificial pancreas. Such systems mimic the functions of a healthy pancreas by blending continuous glucose monitoring, remote-controlled insulin pumps and artificial intelligence to maintain healthy blood-sugar levels automatically.
For Jeroen Tas, CEO of Philips’ Connected Care and Health Informatics unit, diabetes management is also personal: his daughter Kim is diabetic.
“I have seen my daughter struggle with her condition for 13 years and I am aware there are 400 million other people that live with diabetes,” he said. “I am happy that we can contribute to a real solution to manage her condition. We are excited to see the first steps of a big transformation in health care.”
Philips showcased its prototype diabetes management app, which helps patients track their condition and share data, insights and feedback, at a recent health-tech trade show in Las Vegas.
From the numbers, you might think that companies in the connected-health arena would have targeted diabetes care ahead of other chronic conditions. Diabetics in the U.S. outnumber Americans with asthma, congestive heart failure, COPD and depression. And if you count the country’s 86 million pre-diabetics, they even exceed the 70 million Americans with high-blood pressure, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.
One reason for the slow adoption is diabetes is much more difficult to take on with technology.
“Diabetes is a more complex disease than COPD, heart failure and asthma,” said Dr. Nick van Terheyden, Dell’s Chief Medical Officer. “The cost savings take much longer to accrue. It takes years of poor management for severe, expensive complications to show up. And better management doesn’t pay off nearly as quickly.
“For example, with heart failure, simply monitoring for weight gain can give an early warning that a patient is headed for hospitalization, and medication adjustments can often head that off,” van Terheyden said. “So there is a big, immediate savings with a fairly simple input.”
Steve Burger, an AT&T vice president for business development and connected health, agreed. He told me that the communications giant recently made remote diabetes care a connected-health priority. AT&T is partnering with YOFiMeter to bring the startup’s connected glucose meter to market. The YOFiMeter is much less obtrusive than traditional meters, and automatically collects results and stores them in the cloud.
No more finger pricks
Technology from a South San Francisco startup could eliminate the need for finger pricks altogether. Profusa announced in January a series of implant devices that can be used to continuously measure glucose and other blood chemistry elements. The devices, which are about a tenth of an inch long, are injected under the skin and can provide measurements for up to two years with the aid of a special reader and a smartphone app.
Dexcom, an established glucose monitor supplier, is developing disposable eye contacts that continuously measure glucose levels with Verily, the connected health arm of Alphabet, Google’s parent. The pair hope to have the devices ready for market in 2018.
Medtronic already offers an injectable sensor that continuously monitors glucose levels. Patients still need to calibrate the system several times a day, so it doesn’t eliminate finger-prick tests. But it can help Type 1 diabetics avoid episodes of dangerously low blood sugar levels. Medtronic and IBM have partnered on an app that uses Watson to predict hypoglycemic events up to three hours ahead of time.
And there is more good news on the horizon, with several efforts under way to build artificial pancreas systems. Insulet, an insulin pump supplier, and Mode Automated Glucose Control said they will be working together with university researchers to produce a system. They hope to begin clinical trials later this year.
A year ago, an artificial pancreas seemed like a long way off. No longer.
“I do think the continuous glucose monitoring is a lot closer than some believe,” said Dell’s van Terheyden.