Battling diabetes: Tech giants, inventors, mayors and service clubs are on the front lines

Concerns about a mushrooming diabetes epidemic are widespread. The Hindustan Times suggests that once a disease of the affluent, diabetes is now “rampant” among India’s urban poor. A recent report by Aetna International indicates diabetes has increased 40% worldwide in the last two years alone, with the Middle East and Africa hardest hit. There’s a human toll that diabetes extracts, of course. But also an economic one. Aetna claims costs related to diabetes treatment increased by an average of 47% in that same two-year period. So what’s the answer?  Read below about some exciting efforts underway to battle the disease through education and technology. – Liz Enbysk


An oft-cited 2016 World Health Organization (WHO) report on diabetes indicated that globally, an estimated 422 million adults were living with diabetes in 2014, compared to 108 million in 1980. The WHO report also found:

  • Diabetes caused 1.5 million deaths in 2012
  • Diabetes prevalence rose faster in low and middle-income countries than in high-income countries over the past decade
  • Diabetes and its complications bring about substantial economic loss to people with diabetes and their families, and to health systems and national economies through direct medical costs and loss of work and wages.

And the International Diabetes Federation estimates that one in two (46.5%) adults with diabetes is undiagnosed.

Cities can play a role
Today there are efforts underway to attack diabetes on several fronts.

The volunteer service organization Lions Clubs International announced earlier this month it will mobilize its 47,000 service clubs in 200 countries around a new signature cause - the global diabetes epidemic.

Columbus, Georgia Mayor Teresa Tomlinson makes the case that cities can play a role too.

“As we evolve as a country, as a state, as a community, yes, you do see cities getting more and more involved in this because healthcare and people’s quality of life are inextricably tied to their personal well-being, which includes most fundamentally their personal health,” she told the Ledger-Enquirer while announcing plans for a city-wide Cure Diabetes Week.

Advances in technology
The diabetes epidemic suggests an urgent need for innovative solutions – and we’re seeing them:

  • Watson’s on the job: In a partnership with medical device company Medtronic, IBM demonstrated that applying Watson’s cognitive analytics to data from insulin pumps and glucose monitors could predict hypoglycemia – extreme low blood sugar – up to three hours in advance of onset. As Kim Kemble explained on an IBM blog, that’s early enough to prevent a potentially dangerous health event for a diabetic. IBM is also working with the American Diabetes Association to create digital tools for diabetes.
  • Improving patient care with 3G: Qualcomm, meanwhile, has shown how 3G wireless Internet access can be used in diabetes management to improve patient care for marginalized communities. The Dulce Wireless Tijuana Study Qualcomm participated in consolidated and centralized patient information and extended diabetes education to communities in northern Mexico via 3G wireless technologies and community classes. Patients, community health workers, nurses and doctors access the system via mobile devices such as mobile phones, netbooks and laptops. In June, Qualcomm announced an agreement with LifeScan Inc. to streamline wireless data capture from LifeScan’s OneTouch Verio Flex® blood glucose meters to physicians to enable more informed care. Qualcomm Life’s medical-grade 2net™ solution will power the connectivity for efficient, cable-free data collection.
  • She built her own artificial pancreas. Dana Lewis is both a deep sleeper and a diabetic with a continuous glucose monitor and insulin pump. The combination concerned her. She worried she might sleep through an alarm meant to save her life, she told AL.com. Lewis is a Huntsville, Alabama transplant living in Seattle. Long story short, Lewis used connections she found on social media, computer skills learned in college and mail-order parts to invent an artificial pancreas that monitors blood sugar and controls the insulin pump. And it works. Now she and her co-inventor husband are giving away the blueprint online so others with diabetes can do the same. They call it Open APS – for open-sourced pancreas system. "This is a really, really meaningful change," she told AL.com, "and I can't imagine going back to what I call the dark ages of not having my family having visibility into my blood sugars and what's going on and the ability to control these things."

Bring on the apps
Several interesting approaches to managing diabetes are emerging on the app front. Among them:

  • A role for IoT and machine learning: Zion China Technology, a Beijing-based mobile Internet healthcare company, recently developed a diabetes management mobile app designed to help patients live healthier lives by having on-the-go access to advice and information from health specialists. This E-Follow-up solution uses a device that continuously monitors users’ glucose levels to collect health data such as blood sugar, diet, exercise, and medication and ultimately provides personalized advice to help patients manage their health. Zion China collaborated with Microsoft to take advantage of the scalability of the Azure IoT Suite, Machine Learning, Stream Analytics, SQL Database, and Microsoft Power BI while also improving analytics and data security. At the heart of why Zion China built this solution is that “China currently has 130 million citizens who have been diagnosed with diabetes,” says Vincent Yang, CEO of Zion China. “It is our mission to help these patients and their families manage this chronic disease.”
  • An app named Brook: A Seattle company has developed an interactive app for people with Type 2 diabetes. The free app, called Brook and currently available for iPhone, is being piloted by Independent Health, a Western New York insurer. Users can tell Brook about their daily blood sugar levels, meals, medication use and exercise and also chat with other diabetics to share insights. Dr. Michael Cropp, president and CEO of Independent Health, told the Buffalo News what he likes about the app is that it uses an artificial intelligence engine to collect global information, has a rich knowledge base on diabetes and can unite those features to give users keen insights. “It was designed to interact with you through a conversational user interface,” he said. “It's very attractive and easy to use. You don't have to go through multi functions, multiple screens. It's right there with you.”
  • The no-finger-prick app: British scientists have developed a new smartphone app they say can help measure and monitor blood glucose levels without using a drop of blood, a finding that could transform lives of millions of people with diabetes and also play a role in its prevention. The Epic Health app can measure insulin resistance levels, a key way of determining whether someone is pre-diabetic. Suitable for both Type 1 and 2 diabetics, the app works by placing a fingertip over the camera lens of a smartphone and capturing a series of close-up images that convey information about the user’s heart rate, temperature and blood pressure to respiration rate and blood oxygen saturation, according to the researchers.  The app will undergo clinical trials in coming months and is expected to be available for free download by the end of the year.
  • Augmented reality app to manage meds: A new customized app for people with high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes aims to improve their understanding of the multiple medications they must use to manage their condition. In Australia, a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) research team has been investigating how best to use augmented reality (AR) to give patients easy-to-use information at the time they need it most -- when taking their mix of medications.  “A person with diabetes sometimes has to take, on average, eight medications at the same time including blood sugar-lowering medications, cholesterol-lowering medications, aspirin, anti-depressants/anxiolytics or medications for weight management,” said Dr. Alireza Ahmadvand of the QUT research team. “AR brings the possibility of using smart phones to give information on specific medications in a form appropriate to each person’s level of understanding in a convenient and timely way.”

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This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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