Battling diabetes during the pandemic

How digital tech can help build a diabetes management ecosystem.

Diabetes management can be a challenge even in the best of times. Like many chronic conditions, it is about more than a single measurement—in this case, glucose levels. Factors such as weight management and blood pressure control must be monitored regularly since they can have a strong influence on a patient’s health the day of measurement as well as throughout the overall disease progression.

Typically, monitoring occurs through regular testing and visits to the physician’s office. In more advanced cases, people with diabetes may be encouraged to monitor biometric readings such as their weight and blood pressure and call their physician’s office if any reading moves beyond a specific set of parameters.

Of course, these are anything but the best of times. Clinician concerns about the ability to control spread of the coronavirus and care for the surge of patients who contract it, combined with patient fears of acquiring the virus while in a clinical setting, have pushed diabetes management well into the background for many.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s stopped being a major health threat. In 2017, the latest year for which there are figures, diabetes was listed as the cause of death for more than 83,000 Americans, and was an underlying factor for more than 270,000. It is also a major contributing factor to quality of life issues such as amputation, blindness, and kidney and heart disease.

Attention was largely diverted away from diabetes management, but that is changing. Now that regulators have some protocols, processes, and understanding in place, healthcare providers and health plans are once again turning their attention to what they can do to get people with diabetes who may have let things slide in the last few months back on track.

One of their most important weapons in this battle is data. There is certainly no lack of data, or data-gathering capabilities, in U.S. healthcare. Between electronic health records (EHRs); formal remote patient monitoring (RPM) programs; and the health data generated by consumer devices such as the Apple Watch, digital scales, and glucose and blood pressure monitoring devices sold at the local Walgreens or CVS, the capacity to keep a close eye on patient health has never been greater.

But that is also part of the problem: so much data is available in so many different forms that understanding the larger picture of what is going on with an individual patient, or a healthcare organization’s diabetic population, is difficult at best. To truly take advantage of all this great data we are accumulating, we need to bring it together in a way that presents a complete picture and gives each healthcare provider access to all the data he or she needs.

That means having a tool that can aggregate data in a variety of forms from a variety of sources, normalize it, and enable the appropriate components to be accessed by the right providers, including primary care physicians, endocrinologists, heart specialists, care management teams, diabetes educators, and others. In some cases, such as when patients begin trending negatively or appear to be disengaging from their plans of care, it will also mean proactively pushing out alerts so the appropriate actions can be taken before patients require more advanced (and costly) interventions.

Real success, however, requires more than just making the data usable. The optimal approach is to create an ecosystem where health IT (HIT) vendors work together in a true spirit of partnership for the greater good. A good model for this ecosystem is what is happening with “smart homes.”

Apple, Amazon, and Google have each created core systems for controlling nearly every function within the home, such as the lights, temperature, locks, garage door, TV, etc. The manufacturers of the devices they can control then take that technology and incorporate into their products. The result is a seamless experience for the consumer, who can now use an app or voice commands to accomplish what they used to have to do manually.

HIT can do the same and more. Imagine if patients were not only uploading biometric readings but also the data from their choice of exercise or movement monitoring apps, sleep monitoring apps, apps that help them record their food intake and alcohol consumption, results from consumer-grade genetic testing, et cetra. Now imagine if all of that data (plus EHR data) was being accumulated in one place. Everything a clinician, care manager, dietician, diabetes educator, or other healthcare professional would ever need to know to deliver optimal care would be available at their fingertips—whether the patient was making regular visits to the office or sheltering at home during the latest lockdown.

By making this information easily available, healthcare organizations could manage their patients with diabetes (and other conditions) more effectively while ensuring they remain on a positive path. And by creating a user experience that takes patients through the journey of managing their diabetes and makes it easy at every point, we can drive stronger engagement that leads to better health outcomes while minimizing the effort required to achieve it.

Everything needed to build this diabetes management ecosystem is already available. It’s just available in pieces right now.

But with a little vision, and a spirit of collaboration, the healthcare industry can create a world where a global pandemic doesn’t overshadow other health issues such as a diabetes. It merely causes a slight redirect in the way diabetes management is delivered. With the added benefit that HIT organizations that latch onto this concept will find themselves the dominant players in their space.

About the Author

Anthony Comfort is VP of Product Management at VisiQuate, a leading healthcare analytics company that recently partnered with Ascensia Diabetes Care to further develop its user-friendly and holistic diabetes management platform.