More than 100 million U.S. adults are living with diabetes or prediabetes, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public health officials are sounding the alarm on this epidemic and urging healthcare providers to offer preventive measures. Fortunately, many patients can take hope in the evolution of the internet of healthcare things (IoHT) and medical wearables that provide more control of their health than ever before. Similar to the benefits to cardiac patients that I highlighted previously, diabetes is an additional therapeutic area we see making progress.
Traditionally, diabetic patients have used fingertip pricks to test their blood glucose levels. This method has two main drawbacks: It does not continuously monitor levels, and the inconvenience of these tests leads some patients to check less frequently than they should. In turn, that increases the risk of long-term complications, including damage to nerves, eyes and the circulatory system. And lacking real-time data, patients are more vulnerable to extreme swings in glucose levels that can cause disorientation, unconsciousness or even death.
Medical device manufacturers are seizing opportunities to develop wearables that automatically monitor blood glucose and deliver appropriate insulin doses. While many of these companies have spent decades trying to tap into this market, it’s only in recent years that the technology has caught up with their vision.
From major firms to startups, this space continues to grow with new technologies such as wristbands, watches, patches, socks and shoes, and even contact lenses. The FDA has approved a wave of new devices that promise to streamline diabetes management. These tools are becoming so “smart” that they can store patient profile information, vital signs and health analytics, and determine risk levels and suggest care.
Even devices that rely on traditional finger-prick testing are now migrating toward smartphone integration. These systems automatically record and share glucose data and other metrics, including carbs, physical activity and medication intake.
One of the most promising categories is continuous glucose monitoring devices that measure blood glucose levels 24/7. Several of these devices incorporate sensors and transmitters that talk with the user’s smartphone via a mobile app and provide real-time updates every five minutes for up to 90 days at a time.
Many of these devices are suitable for children ages two and up, allowing parents and other caregivers to easily track their health without a painful pinprick. Some of these devices can even sync with other compatible medical devices, including automated insulin dosing systems, insulin pumps or blood glucose meters. One wearable uses a hybrid closed-loop system to monitor glucose and automatically adjust the delivery of long-acting or basal insulin based on the user’s glucose reading.
These devices are now within reach of more patients than ever before thanks to expanded coverage for Medicare recipients. For example, Abbott’s FreeStyle Libre System has met the codes for therapeutic continuous glucose monitoring systems covered by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Meanwhile, other scientists are working to develop devices that monitor blood glucose using ultra-thin, flexible sensors that are applied to the skin. The patches are designed to provide a comfortable, convenient solution that stays put, even for patients with active lifestyles.
More research and large-scale trials are needed to explore the nuances that can impact the efficacy of these devices — from exercise to the location of the sensors on the body. These insights will continue to improve the accuracy and calibration of these products.
Of course, prevention is the gold standard of healthcare. And there’s good news on that front, too. Wearables can provide data that allow prediabetic users to predict — and even prevent — the full onset of diabetes. These devices act as a 24/7 line of defense by alerting patients when their levels are in a problematic range, making it easier to adjust diet, medication and activity levels accordingly.
In turn, they can save hundreds of thousands of dollars per patient in healthcare costs by treating symptoms of diabetes before they become life-threatening. Preventing or mitigating diabetes also has a ripple effect on a range of comorbid conditions, such as hyperlipidemia, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and obstructive sleep apnea.
Electronic skin patches have already been successfully developed to measure other healthcare data, such as changes in body temperature. We partnered with Reckitt Benckiser to distribute a wearable continuous temperature monitor worldwide, allowing parents to automatically track temperature changes in children with fevers that wear a small patch-size device.
As these tools reach the marketplace, providers and patients alike will benefit from reliable non-invasive glucose biosensing. It’s no exaggeration to say that these emerging devices represent a breakthrough in managing chronic conditions.
By removing a major obstacle to monitoring — that is, the inconvenient and painful finger-prick method — patients are likely to achieve greater compliance with diabetes management. Wearables can also complement a medical provider’s care between appointments, empowering patients to make decisions that will benefit their health.
Compared with their predecessors, the accuracy and user-friendliness of today’s medical wearables will continue to reshape the healthcare landscape. With the data-driven insight yielded by these tools, finger-prick tests may soon be a thing of the past.
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